Block finds new home in Reform temple

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Twenty-two male students at Louis and Sarah Block Yeshiva High School attend class in rented space at Congregation Shaare Emeth, said to be the largest Reform temple in the metropolitan area. Some might consider that controversial — but not the parties involved.

“The relationship between the Reform synagogue and ourselves is extraordinary,” said Rabbi Gabriel Munk, head of the Orthodox school. “By far, no one at any place we have held classes before has been as welcoming as Don Kriss and the rabbis of the synagogue. Not only have they shown us tremendous respect, they have given us the ritziest environment we’re ever had – and the rent is quite a bargain, as well.”

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Kriss, executive director at Shaare Emeth, echoed Munk’s enthusiasm. “We look at it beyond a rent situation. This is outreach, and for me personally and for many members of our staff, this situation has made us feel good about who are.”

Setting up the rental arrangement involved calculating who needed which spaces when, studying traffic patterns, establishing channels of communication and setting some general rules. “Everybody kicked in and made it happen,” said Kriss. “And I want to say that these particular young men are the most respectful young men I have ever had the opportunity to be around. They all show pride of ownership of their school.”

The Block Yeshiva students spend their days in four classrooms in a 3,500-square-foot space at Shaare Emeth, located at 11645 Ladue Road in Creve Coeur. Previously, their classes met at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, 8630 Olive Boulevard in Olivette.

“We learned this summer that Nusach Hari B’nai Zion had a serious customer intending to buy their building, and that we needed to move out by mid-August,” said Munk. “Our girls’ school has a building, but we had to find somewhere to move the boys.”

The H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy houses a lab that all Block Yeshiva students use, but there were no classrooms available. The Goldstein Education Center at Congregation Temple Israel was being renovated. Traditional Congregation was far enough west that Munk thought teachers who would be commuting between the boys’ school and the girls’ school would face “a scheduling nightmare.”

Shaare Emeth, on the other hand, was advertising that it had space available. “We met with them, our individual boards met and we made an agreement,” said Munk. “Our school’s parents and our board voted unanimously to allow us to be here. Throughout it all, there has been a lot of respect and a lot of mutual understanding. We’re learning and they are learning.”

Munk noted that the absence of a kosher kitchen has not been a problem. Hot meals are not available, but the students and Block Yeshiva staff have access to a refrigerator. “The kids bring their lunches, as they did before, and we meet for lunch outside, where we eat overlooking a beautiful field,” said Munk.

The rental agreement also included use of sports fields and a parking lot, amenities not previously enjoyed by Block Yeshiva students. “This space is a major upgrade for us, and it’s a good learning environment – plus we have fields where we can practice sports, and a basketball court,’ said Moshe Andrew, 17, a senior.

Asked whether he found it difficult to attend class in a building where woman play major roles in the congregation, Moshe said, “We respect what they do, and don’t have any problems with it. It’s just not an issue, and does not affect how our school is run.”

Munk said the lease is for one year, with the intention of renewing for another. “Depending on how the shul feels, this could be a long-term relationship. Only God knows.”

Rabbi Jim Bennett, senior rabbi at Shaare Emeth, called the leasing arrangement “a partnership of necessity.” He said, “They needed a place to hold classes and we had a big, beautiful building with rooms that were underutilized during the day.”

Bennett reported that early on, someone asked him whether there was any reason not to make the space available to Block Yeshiva students and faculty. “My immediate response was ‘absolutely not.’ We are all members of the Jewish community, and we have so many common values regarding Jewish education. This could help break down the walls that separate us.”

Bennett continued, “There was never an issue about whether our missions collide or present a conflict of interest. Instead, this is a great opportunity to learn about each other, to dispel stereotypes, preconceived notions and prejudices – and to become a stronger, more cohesive Jewish community.”

Early in September, Rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, a member of the Israeli Reform movement from Tzur Hadassah, a suburb of Jerusalem, visited Shaare Emeth. When told of the arrangement with Block Yeshiva, Beit-Halachmi told Bennett, “This is a role model for Jews everywhere. We need to learn from this.”

CAPTION: Rabbi Gidon Nitsun teaches his 10th grade students at Block Yeshiva High School, which has taken residence in Congregation Shaare Emeth. Photo: Kristi Foster