A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Five questions For Ellen Alper NCJW St. Louis executive director

Ellen Alper

The Back To School! Store (BTSS) returns to Temple Israel on Aug. 6 and for the first time, it will be a hybrid offering in-person shopping and pre-packaged delivery. The latter method was used the past three years as COVID forced the National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis to innovate its delivery of school supplies and personal care products to thousands of underserved area children.

The 2023 BTSS co-chairs (Alissa Arst, Chris Bomze, Alison Fox, Judy Grosz and Sarah Beth Matt) have been planning the event for months. Volunteers are still needed and can sign up at ncjwstl.org.

Ellen Alper, NCWJ-St. Louis CEO, offered some insight into the behind-the-scenes work to make it happen.


How does your team turn an activity room at Temple Israel into a fully functioning store?

Our volunteers actually start staging the Tuesday prior to the event. We have deliveries from three different locations. We have offsite storage at Jewish Family Services in the basement and here in our building. So we have literally three moving trucks that are moving merchandise from those three locations all over to Temple Israel.


During COVID, NCJW volunteers drove in a caravan to pick up supplies and drop them off at area agencies. Will you continue to offer that option this year?

Yes, we gave the agencies the option of choosing delivery or in-person, whichever is easiest for the agency and their clients. We are really trying to change the focus—it’s called the empowerment model of direct service. We want to do not just what we think is best, but what the people on the receiving end need.


The personal shopper volunteers will be back this year to assist the kids. Is it accurate to say those volunteers are having as much fun as their young “customers?”

For in-person volunteers, it’s a way to really connect. And you know that you’re making a difference in a child’s life by spending those 45 minutes with them and making them feel important and making them feel like there is a community out there that cares about them and their success and wants to make sure they have everything they need so that they can start school ready and prepared.


Do you update the inventory of supplies to meet changing needs?

Every year, we look at the school supply list that the schools put together, and then we pick the things that are most common to all of them. We are actually going to be doing some research in September and October where we’re going to go out and see what’s changing. What do we need to do differently? How do we adapt? Are there things we should drop and things we should pick up? And we’re going to try to hit every single school district in the region, not just where the kids are coming from, to make sure we’re not missing anything.


Is NCJW always looking for ways to improve the event and the community impact?

Yes, we want to make sure that we are adapting with today’s educational needs. A couple of years ago, we had kids who complained when they were coming through the store that they were hungry. So we set up a new partnership with Operation Food Search, and they provide snacks for all the kids.


Back To School! Store – By The Numbers

Since its inception in St. Louis in 2000, the Back To School! Store has had significant community impact, including:

  • Number of children served: 26,742
  • Amount of money spent: $3,262,827
  • Total volunteers: 8,291
  • Child sponsors for 2023: 323
  • Agency partners for 2023: 67
  • Volunteers for 2023: 374 (as of July 18)
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About the Contributor
BILL MOTCHAN, writer/photographer
Bill worked in corporate communications for AT&T for 28 years. He is a former columnist for St. Louis Magazine. Bill has been a contributing writer for the Jewish Light since 2015 and is a three-time winner of the Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish Journalism. He also is a staff writer for the travel magazine Show-Me Missouri. Bill grew up in University City. He now lives in Olivette with his wife and cat, Hobbes. He is an avid golfer and a fan of live music. He has attended the New Orleans Jazzfest 10 times and he has seen Jimmy Buffett in concert more t han 30 times between 1985 and 2023.