Community gets ready for I-64 shutdown

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

It is the countdown to the shutdown of Interstate 64 and the day is almost here. There is no question the impending construction closure of the highway is on everyone’s mind. The highway is due to close in both directions between Interstate 170 and Ballas Road on Jan. 2 and stay closed the rest of the year. Drivers will still be able to head westbound on the highway from Ballas Road and one lane will be open for eastbound drivers to exit on Ballas Road.

The St. Louis Jewish community has also been preparing for this day. For the most part, no changes have been made…yet. There have been lots of conversations, meetings and possible alternatives discussed. However, for the most part, everyone has a wait-and-see attitude before making any changes. Many simply aren’t able to truly know what is going to happen. Many area businesses are staggering hours for employees, providing MetroLink passes and other incentives to make commuting easier.

While many Jewish congregations and agencies will be effected by the I-64 closure, the biggest impact will probably be felt by B’nai El Congregation and the Saul Mirowitz Day School – Reform Jewish Academy (SMDS-RJA) which is housed in the same building.

B’nai El Temple administrator Susan Baseley said Rabbi Daniel Plotkin has been attending all the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) sponsored meetings about the upcoming closure and keeping the congregation informed of traffic patterns and upcoming closures. They have made maps available to members from MODOT including the specific closures which will most directly affect the congregation. Immediate past president Margie Sacks is working with a committee to create signage to help direct people to the synagogue.

“It’s going to be a lousy, tough year,” Plotkin said. “Ultimately, it will make access to our congregation easier. Unfortunately, we may lose some visibility from the highway because of the new permanent sound barrier going up. On the plus side, we will be able to do more things outside and make better use of our grounds since the sound barrier will mean less noise and exhaust from the traffic on the highway.”

SMDS-RJA is also very concerned about the challenge faced by their families transporting their students to and from the school. The staff has been attending informational meetings concerning the closure and construction timeline and invited MDOT to talk to the board of directors last spring.

Families recently had the opportunity to respond to a questionnaire the school distributed last month looking for their response and feedback on four areas: having a van/bus take students to school with the cost born by parents, extending the hours of before and/or after school care, different school hours and carpools. There was a wide range of responses said head of school Philip Dickstein. However, things that might make life easier for one family would make things more difficult for another family. The school will be monitoring the situation after the road closure and make any “necessary adjustments.”

“Essentially, we are serving as a clearing house of information,” Dickstein said. “We hope to be able to help our families manage the upcoming challenge, by serving as a link for our families and by being a place for our families to reach out to each other. We want to help support our community — even as we face the difficult time ahead.”

One small reprieve for the congregation and school is the construction timeline projection calls for the Spoede Road overpass to remain open until April. This will make it possible for north and south traffic between Ladue and Clayton Road.

Gateway Constructors Public Information Manager Dan Galvin confirmed the plan is to keep the Spoede Bridge overpass open until April 2008. There will still be access to the congregation from north Spoede Road to North Outer Forty even after the bridge comes down. People used to going over the Spoede Bridge from the south to reach the synagogue will need to use an alternative route.

“Once the bridge comes down we will still maintain access to the homes, synagogue and day school,” Galvin said. “It may be on temporary pavement but people will be able to get where they need to go.”

Temple Emanuel is located on Conway Road just west of Ballas Road. The biggest challenge for the congregation according to Rabbi Joshua Taub is the overwhelming majority of their members live east. They haven’t had to make many changes “yet,” said Taub. The only change so far is that they moved their 6:30 p.m. Friday evening service to 7:30 p.m. There is some concern though with the expected traffic increase from people entering and exiting the highway on Ballas.

Most of the congregation’s programming takes place on Sunday when traffic flow should be less. They do not have a midweek adult education or Hebrew school program. Other congregational groups that meet midweek may or may not have to adjust their times.

“The benefit of a smaller congregation is our ability to be more agile,” Taub said. “We can wait to make some decisions and shift and adjust once we know the true effect of the closure. We anticipate it will be easy to do due to the smaller size of our congregation.”

Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel is bordered by Brentwood and the highway. Executive director Harvey Leader felt the construction will prove “inconvenient but should have little impact on the membership.” Their midweek afternoon Hebrew school this school year is taking place at Shaare Zedek and Leader feels attendance at Shabbat services shouldn’t be affected since there is less traffic on Saturdays.

“We will have to wait and see the actual effect of the closure,” Leader said. “However, we are thinking ahead to the 2008 High Holidays which do fall midweek and we will have to consider how our service times could be affected by rush hour traffic.”

Rush hour is already a problem for parents who have children in midweek after school Hebrew school programs. The Jewish community Hebrew school, which is a program of the commission on Conservative Jewish education of the Central Agency for Jewish Education, holds midweek classes at B’nai Amoona and Shaare Zedek. Commission director Maxine Weil is expecting the shutdown to affect the Hebrew school programs, especially at the west branch school held at B’nai Amoona.

“We are encouraging parents to consider staying at B’nai Amoona while their students are in classes,” Weil said. “The synagogue has wireless connections in the lobby and library so parents can even bring their laptops and get work done.”

Weil knows parents will be making adjustments in order to drop off and pick up their students on time. She knows of at least one group of parents who are changing their carpool arrangements in anticipation of the increased traffic.

“Usually one parent drops off the students and the other parent picks them up,” Weil said. “Now just one parent will drive both ways and hang out at the synagogue or nearby to avoid the traffic.”

The staff and members of Central Reform Congregation are attuned to the problem and stand ready to discuss possible alternatives. They have already had to deal with the Kingshighway overpass closure twice this month. They kept members informed about the closure and alternate routes through special e-announcements. Executive director John Terranova said they have talked about different possibilities with the Shabbat and Hebrew school program but are not making any immediate changes.

“We hate to be in a reactive mode but until everything shakes out we won’t know for sure the appropriate changes to make,” Terranova said. “We can’t guess with any certainty the true effects of the closure and don’t want to speculate how members will choose to adjust.”

Terranova said it will probably take a few weeks for things to settle in and driving patterns to be established. They plan on continually monitoring and communicating with the membership and will make adjustments as problems are identified. They will also continue to send e-announcements concerning construction, lane closures and traffic adjustments.

The construction is also having a major effect on the St. Louis Community Eruv whose south boundary is within the work area of the proposed highway improvement. Even the current on-going work in the area to grade the ground and relocate utility lines has made it challenging and in some cases impossible to inspect the south boundary. Stuart Zimbalist is part of the group which helps build, fix and maintain the eruv. He feels the “likelihood of being able to maintain the current south boundary is slim.”

“We are working on plans for that south portion of the boundary,” Zimbalist said. “We have received a lot of help and cooperation from the contractors. In fact, they actually called us and asked us how we can work together. Right now it is a lot of work to maintain the eruv until an alternative is figured out.”

Another aspect of Jewish community life which will be affected by the shutdown will be funerals. While many times the highway is not used for funerals, the diverted I-64 traffic will cause more congestion on local streets and roads.

“We have established new routes and will need to give more time to get to cemeteries,” Rindskopf-Roth Funeral Chapel manager Bob Aronberg said.

Richard Stein, president of Berger Memorial, said they have also established alternative routes and are pondering different scenarios. One possibility people might consider is to have a set time for internment with individuals meeting at the cemetery instead of traveling as part of a funeral procession. They especially anticipate issues going to Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on White Road in Chesterfield.

“Almost all of our funerals have a private motorcycle escort which helps with traffic,” Stein said. “The closed highway will effect scheduling of funerals since we can’t anticipate getting back and forth in a set amount of time — especially if there is more than one funeral in a day. However, what is most important is how to serve our families in a timely manner.”

There are many other ways the closed highway will impact the St. Louis Jewish community. One rabbi expressed concern about hospital visits to Barnes-Jewish becoming more challenging for rabbis coming from West County. Then there are the 2008 High Holidays falling midweek. Yes, it will be challenging, annoying and frustrating. But, we are all in the same boat and should think about the following advice offered by SMDS-RJA secretary Carol Erbar.

“Breathe in and breathe out,” Erbar said. “Be flexible and patient.”

For up-to-date information on the I-64 construction project, lane closures and commuter alternatives visit: www.thenewi64.org.

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