BSKI welcomes Israeli scholar


There are two secrets in Jewish life, according to Dr. Aviva Zornberg, an internationally-renowned biblical scholar and author. She was in St. Louis on Thursday, May 22 to deliver the scholar-in-residence talk at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (BSKI) as part of its centennial celebration.

“There is Torah and prayer. Torah represents the intellectual; and prayer represents the spiritual or piety. One without the other is no good,” Zornberg, who lives in Jerusalem, said.

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Using Jacob’s story to clarify her points, Zornberg explained that there is a line between a sense of power and powerlessness. “Jacob evokes someone who thinks at first that you can design your life the way you want it and then there is a rupture in the plan,” she said. “You can’t really be prepared. So what do you do then? You reorganize and try to see what this change is offering.” Zornberg said these experiences, similar to Jacob’s story, can help one to feel in a certain way that is different than what may be one’s first, natural feeling.

Organizers of the event said Zornberg’s appearance was a great way to highlight BSKI’s tradition of education. “We’ve always been a congregation that is interested in education,” Tobi Don, congregation president, said. “In addition to educating the children, we have a strong adult education component. Tonight highlighted what we’re all about.”

The congregation began celebrating its 100th anniversary earlier this year with a Purim party and masked ball. In addition to Zornberg’s presentation, BSKI has planned several events throughout the year to mark its centenary. “Last weekend we had a picnic and a landscaping event to spruce up the front entrance,” Susan Cort, centennial anniversary co-chair, said. “The Women’s League will be hosting an event in July and in September we will hold a gala.” Cort is overseeing the year’s activities along with Marcia Sokol-Anderson. “We wanted to do something for the community and our congregants,” Cort said about the series of events to commemorate the centennial. “And we wanted to celebrate this significant event.” Brith Sholom Congregation began in 1908 as an Orthodox shul for Austrian-Hungarian Jews. Kneseth Israel formed in the early 1940s by garment district merchants and salesmen who needed a place to say Kaddish. In 1960, the two Orthodox synagogues merged to become the congregation it is now. Along the way it became a Conservative synagogue.

Organizers began planning the year-long events around a year ago. “We keep developing ideas and try to relate what we’re doing to the centennial,” Harvey Leader, executive director of BSKI, said. “It’s important to celebrate these milestones because you need to know where you came from in order to know where you’re going.”

The chair of Thursday evening’s event, Denise Field, was very pleased with the turnout that Zornberg received. “There are many people here who are not from BSKI,” Field said. “And we are happy to share her with the community.” Over 160 people attended the speech and subsequent dessert reception.

Rabbi Mordecai Miller, spiritual leader of BSKI, had originally suggested Zornberg as the speaker. He said the event was an opportunity for BSKI to give back to the community. Edwin “Ed” Harris, the rabbinic pastor and chazen at Central Reform Congregation, said Zornberg’s talk inspired him. “She goes so deep into the text that she makes me want to go deeper when I lead Torah study,” Harris said. Leah Howard, from Young Israel of St. Louis and a teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis, said she was moved listening to Zornberg. “We know what it is to be Jewish but we need to learn to knit both the intellect and the spirit together.”

Miller said Zornberg’s speech met his expectations of the evening. “It’s an appropriate way to celebrate a landmark in our history. And it’s erev Lag B’omer, the scholar’s holiday,” Miller said. He said Zornberg captured a number of different areas such as psychology, sociology, and Biblical history and put it together in a very sophisticated narrative.