BSKI’s farewell is marked by poignant memories of synagogue building

Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah leads a ceremony on Sunday to say farewell to the Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel building at 1107 E. Linden Ave. in Richmond Heights. In 2013, BSKI and Shaare Zedek merged to form Kol Rinah.  For more photos, visit Photos: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Between the boarded-up windows, the space heater fighting a bit of a chill in the sanctuary and the periodic beep of a nearby smoke alarm’s dying battery, it was easy to see that life was winding down for the building at 1107 E. Linden Ave. in Richmond Heights. 

But on this Sunday, the 56-year-old structure that had housed Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel for its entire existence had one last lifecycle event to which it would play host — its own funeral.

“I know there is a deep sense of pain and loss in leaving this building and in saying goodbye to the spiritual home that we have lived in and loved for decades — for some of us, for our whole lives,” said Rabbi Noah Arnow.

Arnow presided over the afternoon ceremony, which took place after the structure’s final morning services. The building has sat mostly unused in the wake of BSKI’s 2013 merger with Shaare Zedek to create the area’s newest synagogue, Kol Rinah. Arnow, who arrived the following year, is now its spiritual leader.

The rabbi struck a somber tone and a few tears fell among the dozens who packed the sanctuary to standing-room-only capacity. It was a memorial not just for the edifice but also BSKI itself whose legacy would now continue in the new merged congregation that has been operating since at 829 N. Hanley Road in University City.


“It was the product of courage and imagination, hard work and vision,” Arnow said of BSKI. “This congregation contributed so much to the Jewish community and to the greater St. Louis community. I know all of us here are committed to preserving that legacy and bringing it forward into the future.”

BSKI concluded with a merger but it was also born of one. Brith Sholom was incorporated in 1908, moving through four locations before finally coming to suburban Richmond Heights from a spot on Delmar Boulevard as it joined with Kneseth Israel, a smaller, younger Clayton congregation with roots in the downtown garment district. In the late 1950s, the late Sholom Rivkin, later chief rabbi of St. Louis, would serve at Kneseth Israel. 

The 1960 merger brought many changes besides a new name. Brith Sholom, which began life as an Orthodox synagogue with membership limited to Austro-Hungarian Jews, switched to affiliate with the rapidly growing Conservative movement. It also had a new rabbi, Benson Skoff, who had begun leading the congregation the previous year, as well as the new building  on Linden, another outpost representing the westward demographic shift of Jews out the city’s central core.

The dream of that new facility began with Skoff’s predecessor, Rabbi Jacob Mazur. He urged the shul to purchase the land, which soon began construction of the first phase of a new building. The congregation began holding services on Linden with its 1960 completion but that original portion of the building later became the shul’s education center when the structure was expanded to include a new sanctuary a few years later.

Skoff led the congregation until assuming the title rabbi emeritus in 1991. He turned the reins over to Rabbi Mordecai Miller, who departed the post in 2013.

During the ceremony, which included singing and prayer, congregants were encouraged to share memories of the structure. Some included anecdotes or talk of birthdays and lifecycle events gone by. One former congregant even texted from Israel to note that she still sits on the left side of her Jerusalem synagogue because that’s where she sat at BSKI.

Congregant Randi Mozenter recalled how her son and daughter, now adults, had celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah at the shul. 

The 57-year-old, now vice-president of personnel at Kol Rinah, said that while she is sad about the building’s closure, she is excited about creating a future with fellow congregants at the new joined institution.

“My 23-year-old daughter, who is very wise, said to me, ‘You know, Mom, a building is just a building,’” said the Clayton resident. “‘It’s important and it is grounded in all your memories but your memories, your experiences and your events live within you and they go with you wherever you go.’ ”

Carol Battle said she recalled being in the first class of adult women to become a bat mitzvah at the synagogue in 1976. She’s now with Kol Rinah.

“You have to go on,” said Battle whose grandfather was a charter member at Brith Sholom.  “I’m sad to see it go but I realize it is a transition. Life is a transition. Everything goes and this too shall pass.”

For some, BSKI was a reminder of family. Central Reform congregant Helene Frankel said her memories were of her father for whom she’d said kaddish here.

“It was my dad’s spiritual home,” said Frankel, who said her father had been shul president twice. “My dad was very, very devoted to the synagogue as was my maternal grandmother. The family goes back a long way in their connection to BSKI.”

Arlene Fox’s connection to BSKI also goes back a long way. She said that hers was the first marriage to take place in the building.

“I have more emotion than I really expected to have,” said Fox, who attended the weekend remembrance with her two youngest grandchildren. “I went to Sunday school at Brith Sholom. We got married here. My parents were extremely active here all the time. My mother was 82 years old packing Meals on Wheels here.”

Gerald Cohen, a fourth-generation congregant at the synagogue, said it was an emotional day but that it was also time to move forward. He said the thing he’d remember most was the High Holiday services when hundreds would pack the building.

“There was such fervor,” said the Kol Rinah member as he clutched an envelope with one of the souvenir tiles being given out from the building’s wall. “There was such emotion and it was just a wonderful feeling.”

Unfortunately, not all of the building’s memories were such happy ones. BSKI was the site of tragedy in October 1977 when neo-Nazi Joseph Paul Franklin pumped five shots into an unsuspecting crowd of bar mitzvah-goers, killing 42-year-old Gerald Gordon from a makeshift sniper’s nest behind a telephone pole. Franklin, a serial killer implicated in other racially motivated murders, confessed to the crime in the 1990s. After the trial, he said his only regret was that killing Jews was illegal however, Franklin expressed remorse and renounced anti-Semitism before his 2013 execution by lethal injection.

Lifelong member Ralph Graff, 83, recalled that the congregation even recognized the individual who brought the shooter to justice.

“We had really a very nice Shabbas where we honored the policeman who finally tracked this guy down,” he remembered. “He got up and spoke.”

The formation of Kol Rinah is Graff’s second merger as he was a congregant for the formation of BSKI. In fact, his grandfather, great-uncle and great-grandfather were founding members for legacy congregation Brith Sholom. He said that Kneseth Israel members mostly dwindled after the joining but, thankfully, he doesn’t feel that’s happening this time as both legacy congregations are well-represented in the new entity.

“If BSKI is going to survive in any way, it has got to be through the mechanism of Kol Rinah,” he said.

Mitch Shenker, Kol Rinah’s president, said the property is being sold. The transaction has not gone through closing yet, but the Richmond Heights City Council recently approved a plan for the land to be developed into a 42-unit townhouse by Atlanta-based Pulte Homes. Meanwhile, Kol Rinah is acquiring a church at the corner of Maryland Avenue and Hanley Road to become its new home.

Like others, congregant Gary Kodner, one of the driving forces behind the merger, said he was sad to see the old building go. Growing up nearby, he recalled playing in the construction site as a child and noted that there are commemorative plaques on the wall dating back to his great-grandparents. 

Still, he said, change is inevitable and the moment was bittersweet.

“We’ve all had to leave buildings. We’ve all had to leave structures in our life behind,” he said. “It’s the memories that we are going to take with us.”

At the close of the ceremony, Arnow led the crowd outside for the day’s climactic act: the removal of the mezuzah. As attendees filed out the door, they passed a familiar sign on the wall one final time.

“If you are the last person out,” it read, “please make sure the lights are off and the door is firmly closed.”