Brothers rule the shuls

Rick (left) and Gary Kodner.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Harvey Leader calls it a “Kodner trait.”

“It must be inborn, at least for these two,” he said. “It’s amazing that two brothers who are very dissimilar in a lot of ways are both so passionate about giving to the Jewish community and so committed to it.”


Leader would know. He served as executive director at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, where Rick Kodner serves as president, and as executive director of Shaare Zedek Synagogue, where Rick’s brother Gary is president. He calls Rick “very positive and giving to the community.”

“Obviously, Gary’s the same way,” he said. “They’re both very passionate – especially when they think they’re right.”

Lately, some important people seem to think the Kodners are right. Recently, they were nominated to positions on the national board of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ). It’s the latest in a series of twists that continue to animate the lives of both brothers – as well as the larger community they’ve come to impact.

The lesson of change

“I’m not an intense person but people often think I am,” said Gary Kodner, 55.

He may exude that intensity just because for him change is an expected part of life, something to be embraced rather than feared. It comes naturally to someone who quit two high-paying jobs with advertising and promotions agencies because he was more interested in what was on the horizon, and wanted to find a place that would embrace the next wave.

When he couldn’t find it, he invented it. Gary founded his own creative services consultancy with his wife Peggy Nehmen more than two decades ago and hasn’t looked back. Today, clients include Anheuser-Busch and the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I don’t like to let things lay,” Gary said. “I don’t like to leave for tomorrow what should be done today. I’ve seen too many things, particularly in the new wave of technologies that I have been through in my business, where those who waited around and those who didn’t believe it are dinosaurs. They are out of business. I learned those lessons early on.”

Gary’s brother Rick, 52, seems more laid back but is no less driven on the topic of change.

“Because life is changing and both of us are in a technology field, we see it even quicker because technology changes much quicker than synagogues,” said Rick, who runs his own business doing information technology work. “That’s why we’re seeing a necessity at this point in time for a new type of synagogue.”

It’s a necessity that has been playing itself out for the brothers on two different levels. The first is their nomination to the General Assembly Board of the USCJ, which is presently examining the kind of explosive change the Kodners take to so easily. The group has seen new leadership of late and has redone both its bylaws and its structure.

“What we both have come away with is that we’re in the middle of a transformation, if not a revolution,” Gary said. “A lot of people don’t get that bird’s eye view and look at that wider perspective. They are only capable of seeing within the confines of their synagogue. Rick and I both see a different progression and we realize that in revolutions and transformations, some things are going to die and some things are going to survive.”

Both brothers have had a number of conversations with synagogue leaders at the national level, including USCJ CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick.

“Wernick is on the right track because I think he is willing to do the hard stuff,” Gary said.

His brother agrees. Rick said he enjoys talking with national synagogue leadership.

“While people are schmoozing with them, I’m picking their brains,” Rick said. “I want to know how we should proceed with certain aspects of what we’re doing and whether they are willing to bring in the national people to help us.”

The help they’ve been seeking is needed because for the Kodners change isn’t confined to the world of national synagogue structure. BSKI and Shaare Zedek have been in deep negotiations over a potential merger between the two congregations. It’s been a long exploratory process with an outcome that’s still uncertain, but the pair has been able to take the lead in driving the meetings.

Both have worked hard to bring a sense of openness and inclusiveness to a situation where feelings could easily be rubbed raw.

“I think he has managed a potentially divisive process in a very diplomatic way,” said BSKI’s Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Rick Kodner. “He makes it very clear that he wants everyone to be able to be heard.”

Rabbi Mark Fasman of Congregation Shaare Zedek heaps equal praise onto Gary, calling him a “leader with outstanding attention to detail.” Fasman said that’s nothing new for Gary who has always shown leadership in meetings of any kind.

“Academics tend to be more interested in exploring options,” Fasman said. “That’s OK for awhile but you have to have people who get to the point of proposing answers to questions and are willing to follow through on the details going from decision to implementation. Gary, I think, is exceptional in that regard.”

While it’s not yet known whether the two institutions will find that a merger is right for them, it is clear that the process has been smoothed by the brothers’ relationship and the manner in which their styles complement each other.

Still, both are quick to point out that it’s not about them.

“The fact that it works is because we get along so well but what has brought the two synagogues together is out of need to create a different type of community,” Rick said. “The end result may not be a merger but it will mean collaborating on community.”

And that relates back to the larger changes that are buffeting the Conservative tradition generally.

“Rick and I have both had an evolution in the way we see not just these two synagogues going but the way the whole Conservative Movement is going,” Gary said.

A history in synagogue life

Synagogue culture has long been a Kodner tradition. The family was originally members at Shaare Zedek until 1960 when the merger of Brith Sholom and Kneseth Israel resulted in a relocation to Richmond Heights. They moved to the newly formed institution, where their mother eventually worked.

“You can imagine how close synagogue life was to us growing up,” Gary said. “Plus when you live that close to a synagogue and you have five men in your household, you get called for minyans quite often. I think in a subtle way that had a lot to do with us becoming leaders in our congregations. Synagogues have always been a part of our family.”

Gary was very active at BSKI, where he would eventually become president. But disagreements developed and by 2004 Gary left for Shaare Zedek.

“I was embroiled in an unfortunate conflict,” recalled Gary. “It emanated from two very strong factions that had differences of opinion about where the synagogue was going and what kind of a synagogue they wanted it to be.”

There was no bitterness from the split however. Gary has donated his services to BSKI on occasion, participated in programming there and even still attends services at his old synagogue from time to time. He even said he chose Shaare Zedek because it reminded him so much of BSKI.

“Like I said to one member, I’m probably in their building more than many of their members,” he laughed.

It’s not the only place Gary appears regularly in the community. In addition to his synagogue duties, he is also a vice president of both the Central Agency for Jewish Education and the Jewish Light. The father of two participates in activities outside the Jewish community as well sitting on the curriculum committee for Clayton High School. He also recently was invited to join the board of Gateway to Hope, a local group he’s been involved with for years that helps breast cancer patients. It’s one of a number of organizations to which he donates his time.

His services as a graphic designer are also often given free of charge to organizations in need of them.

“Gary is energetic, enthusiastic and committed to Conservative Judaism in the St. Louis area,” said Marsha Birenbaum, chairman of Shaare Zedek’s board and a past president of the synagogue. “He really loves working with the kids on the teen page in the Jewish Light. I think their energy level matches his. It’s hard for adults to keep up with him.”

After college Rick had his own adventures. A meat sciences major, he even spent time working at a pig farm in western Kansas.

“We arrive in town – and when I say town I’m really exaggerating,” chuckles Gary, who drove him there. “There was a dog sleeping in the middle of the street…”

“…and it was noon,” interjected Rick.

“I turned to Rick and said, ‘You’re sure you want to stay here?'” remembered Gary.

Stay there he did – for a year and a half. That was followed by another stint in a small town in Illinois. But with the nearest synagogue an hour away, Rick felt the urge to come back to St. Louis. Once he did, he eventually married architect Gail Brody – who happens to be Peggy Nehmen’s ex-college roommate.

For awhile Rick even worked for his brother but then went on his own. Today, his IT clients include Solomon Schechter Day School, from which his twin sons will soon graduate. He’s on the board of Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery and has used his IT talents to assist organizations ranging from the Jewish Light to Lift for Life Gym. Earlier this year, he was named director of Camp Ben Frankel of the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois. Like his brother, Rick finds that charitable work plays a part in his life and has been involved with the March of Dimes.

Rabbi Allen Selis, head of school at SSDS, described the younger Kodner as having a big heart.

“There was a younger student of ours who was very curious and intellectually interested and Rick basically took him under his wing teaching him how to take computers apart and put them back together again,” Selis said. “This kid is a whiz now at doing that because he had someone to mentor him. For this child it became like an advanced enrichment class.”

As for the future, neither brother is certain what comes next – and for them that’s a good thing. Whether the synagogues merge or not, whether Conservatism nationally reorients itself or not, things have to move forward, Gary said.

“In the context of what’s going on with our synagogues and the Conservative Movement, those who sit back and do nothing are putting themselves at a disadvantage,” said Gary. “They may survive or they may not but I would like to be a little bit more proactive and not allow events to change me. I would rather be a part of the change.”

His brother is enthused about the idea of taking a bigger role nationally in shaping change.

“I believe in the Conservative movement, whatever it’s going to look like,” Rick said. “Conservative Judaism has always been the movement of change. The Orthodox have their track. The Reform have their track. Conservatism has maintained its spot right between them and can embrace things that are less religious than the Orthodox and more religious than the Reform. At times it’s been confusing but for the most part it’s where I feel a comfort level.”