B’nai El to put its property up for sale

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

B’nai El, a Reform congregation that proudly traces its roots back 160 years to 1852 when two downtown congregations were combined, is putting its property in Creve Coeur up for sale.

Congregation president Amye Carrigan said that deciding what the members will do and where they will go is under way, but congregation leaders have set no specific timeline for the actions it may take. Today, the congregation numbers about 150 families.

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Realizing that the B’nai El building of 28,500 square feet on six acres at 11411 North 40 Drive has become too large for the congregants has been a difficult and emotional for many, Carrigan said.

The structure was built in 1965 to hold 800 families, she said. Even when the congregation moved in from its fourth location at Delmar Blvd. and Clara Ave. in St. Louis city, it had considerably fewer families at about 600. The trend since has been downward.

“We hoped and dreamed it could be 800,” said Craig Roth, who was president in 2001 and in 2009 and 2010. “Many congregations are faced with the same issues.”

Still, the congregation is taking its time as it moves into its next phase.

“This is not a fire sale,” said Carrigan. “It’s a deliberate process.”

To that end, the board hired Rabbi Scott Saulson of Atlanta earlier this year as interim rabbi to guide the process. He has been meeting with members of the congregation in focus groups and has made an effort to be in touch with all the congregants to learn more about what they want to do and how they might want B’nai El to evolve.

In an interview, Saulson said his specialty is helping changing Reform congregations find the right way to continue to worship as a community. He described his role, in addition to leading services, as “a combination of grief counseling and re-energizing the congregation.”

Regarding B’nai El’s future, Saulson said “this is not the end of the road. That is not the case here. I use the metaphor of a river, where we may not have much control over the current and where the river takes us. We have to find the right tributary.”

Saulson said he and other Reform rabbis in similar situations around the country speak consult with each other by teleconference every six weeks or so.

“This is the kind of work I love,” Saulson said. “Leading this effort is serious and uplifting.”

He said the problem of Jewish communities across the United States being “overbuilt” for their current needs is widespread. In Atlanta, which is his home, Saulson said less than 30 percent of the Jewish population is affiliated with a congregation.

“What is happening around the country generally is happening to the Jewish community,” he said. “These are challenges faced by the mainstream religious community all over the country. We are being challenged to think in new ways….We [at B’nai El] have to look are who we are and how to adapt.”

Carrigan, Roth and Saulson all noted that the St. Louis Jewish community seems to be getting smaller with fewer young people affiliating formally with one congregation.

Nonetheless, for members of B’nai El, the process of deciding what to do can be quite painful, said Carrigan.

“We have a lot of congregants who are very sentimental about this building,” she said.

“In the end, it’s about the contents and not the container.”

Announcement of the pending sale came recently in a press release. At the time, Carrigan provided no details, saying to do so would be premature. When contacted, board officials deferred to Carrigan, who did say possible sale of the property “is something that has been on the table for years.”

The press release stated: “In every generation—bekhol dor vador—we are called upon to reinvigorate our faith.  This generation of B’nai El is no different.  In order to maximize our resources and meet the needs of our current and future membership, B’nai El Congregation has placed its property on sale.  In the coming year we intend to capitalize on our profoundly rich history as we determine where and how we will redefine ourselves.  We are excited about the upcoming opportunities to re-energize ourselves and the Jewish community of St. Louis.  We invite you to share in our journey.”

Until this fall, B’nai El was the home of the Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy (RJA). That school has moved to the former Solomon Schechter Day School on the campus of Congregation B’nai Amoona at 348 South Mason Road in Creve Coeur, merging with Schechter to create the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

The B’nai El property also has been the home of a Lutheran school and a school for the deaf. Officials of a faith-based Islamic school, Al Manara Academy, were considering moving into B’nai El but were unable to reach an agreement with temple officials in time for the school term beginning this fall.

“In the big picture, the Islamic school wasn’t really the consideration,” Carrigan said. “Whether it was a tenant or not didn’t matter. This is a larger issue.”

According to B’nai El’s website, the congregation came into being nine years before the Civil War when two congregations, B’nai Brith and Emanu El, combined. The newly formed B’nai El became the first congregation to build its own building west of the Mississippi River at 6th and Cerre streets, near to where Busch Stadium is today. It had an octagonal shape and turret-like structures on its roof, which meant it was dubbed the “Coffee Mill.”

For a short time, the website says, the congregation became traditional Orthodox. Then it joined the Reform movement and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism.

The congregation announced in March it had hired Saulson on an interim basis. The congregation had been without a senior rabbi since Rabbi Daniel Plotkin left in June 2011.

Roth, the two-time former president, spoke of the rich history of the congregation and the emotional difficulties that may lie ahead.

“We have firth- and sixth-generation members at B’nai El,” he said.

Asked what the congregation means to him personally, Roth said: “My two daughters were bat-mitzvahed there. We have had many life-cycle events there. That makes it a home of a sort. But we have to look at it, to find the right size for it. It remains an important place for me.”