Elynor Flegel, 79, prolific fundraiser for charitable causes in St. Louis

Elynor Flegel and her husband, Leslie

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

When Joan Silber was president of Aish HaTorah in the late ’90s, the Orthodox Jewish educational organization was working to convert the former Chesterfield Firehouse into a center for Jewish learning. 

But the group needed to raise a significant amount of money to pay for the project, which was expected to cost $760,000.

So Rabbi Elazar Grunberger, who led Aish at the time, sought help from a local Jewish woman known for her development skills: Elynor Flegel.

“Elynor, being the wonderful, giving person she always was, just said, ‘Sure,’ ” recalls Silber of the successful project. “She came in and gave us a lot of advice and assistance for our approach to fundraising.”

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Nevermind that Mrs. Flegel was not an active participant at Aish or that development was what she also did professionally at Webster University. She still donated her time. 

“Elynor just jumped in in any way she could to help anybody,” said Silber.

Her expertise in fundraising and desire to help others became a known commodity for Jewish and non-Jewish nonprofits and played a pivotal role in developing a number of programs that became mainstays of the St. Louis Jewish community, according to volunteers and Jewish professionals. 

Mrs. Flegel died Jan. 18 at age 79 from a rare form of Parkinson’s disease.

“It was hard for her to see the underdog, and I think what drove her was trying to help people have an equal playing field,” said Lauren Sagel, Mrs. Flegel’s daughter. 

Mrs. Flegel met her husband, Leslie, at a Jewish Federation of St. Louis singles event in 1960. Sagel recalls that the family would celebrate Shabbat each week with Friday night dinners.

“She was not particularly religious, but I think the connection to the community meant a lot to her from growing up in U. City,” said Sagel. “The cultural part of Judaism was important to her. Her family was important to her, and I think she wanted to give us a strong base and the community a strong base.”

That desire drove her to serve on the board of what is now the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, where she became the organization’s first Cultural Arts chair and a founder of the Jewish Book Festival in 1979, the Light reported. Mrs. Flegel’s particular contribution was in launching the festival’s annual book sale, said Zelda Sparks, director of arts and culture at the JCC. 

“I just think she had a good eye for the way things should look, what would be appealing,” said Sparks. “She was really a mover and a shaker at that time and was very active at the J in the cultural arts as a whole.”

Mrs. Flegel also contributed to Jewish programs to help the underserved. As a volunteer with National Council of Jewish Women – St. Louis, Mrs. Flegel worked on the Victim Service Council, an initiative to help the victims of crime and abuse. 

“Finding solutions to a variety of human problems is not easy, but volunteers such as Elynor Flegel have been able to claim some accomplishments,” the Light reported in 1978. “When one victim, a paraplegic as a result of a gunshot wound, was discharged from the hospital with only a mattress to sleep on, Mrs. Flegel combed community resources until she found a suitable bed, then called her own mover and convinced him to deliver and assemble it.”

In 1990, Mrs. Flegel chaired a committee for a rally to help in the fundraising for the resettlement of Jews fleeing the Soviet Union for the United States. She also served as vice president of NCJW and as chairwoman of the J’s Family Program and Group Services Department. 

Fred Steinbach served with Mrs. Flegel on the board of what is now called Jewish Family Services and watched her stewardship of the WINGS program, a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness St. Louis (which Mrs. Flegel also served as president of) to help adults struggling with mental illness and their families. That cause was particularly important to Mrs. Flegel because her brother Randy was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

When WINGS was struggling because of lack of funding and participation, it was a “very trying time” for Mrs. Flegel, Steinbach recalls. But her “passion and time investment in keeping it alive” for a little while longer “were consequential,” Steinbach said.

“She was passionate about the causes in which she was involved, and she was very thorough in preparing to talk to donors,” Steinbach added. 

Amy Rome, the founder of the Rome Group, a consulting firm that assists nonprofits with development, met Mrs. Flegel in the early ’80s while the two were participating in the first class of the Coro Women in Leadership program, which aims to help women develop leadership skills. Rome described Mrs. Flegel as her mentor in learning how to approach development. 

She was an effective fundraiser because of “her ability to communicate and really her belief in what she was doing. Raising money is about building relationships, but you have to be genuine in terms of whatever it is you are raising money for, and anything she worked on, she was committed to 150 percent,” Rome said.

Sagel also thinks that her mom surprised some people.

“She really didn’t have to do all of this. She was very pretty; she was very social. And in that time, people were not expecting Jewish women to be doing fundraising, so I think people were impressed and in awe of it,” Sagel said. 

Even when her health declined because of the Parkinson’s disease, Silber recalls, “It never stopped her spirit from moving forward and her optimism for the next day.”

Mrs. Flegel is survived by her husband, S. Leslie Flegel, and her children Jason Flegel, Mark Flegel and Lauren Sagel; brother Craig Keyser; and grandchildren Dylan and Brooke Flegel and Graham and Alexa Sagel.