Kol Rinah, Clayton church agree to building exchange

At the signing of the building exchange deal are (from left) Kol Rinah Rabbi Noah Arnow, Kol Rinah President Mitch Shenker, The Journey Lead Pastor Jeremy Irwin, and The Journey Director of Operations Mike Duncan.

By Eric Berger, Special to the Jewish Light

Conservative synagogue Kol Rinah has agreed to sell its University City building to the Journey Christian church in exchange for one of its buildings in Clayton. 

The purchases of each other’s campuses, renovations and move of the congregations is expected to take place over two years, during which time the buildings will be shared.

The deal is the latest chapter in the story of Conservative congregations Shaare Zedek and Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, which merged into Kol Rinah in 2013 to consolidate resources and reverse a trend of declining membership.

Kol Rinah leaders have tried to make changes such as hiring a new rabbi and purchasing the former church building without alienating longtime members of the two synagogues.

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“In order to survive long term, the congregation needed a new space, a new start, and it needed to be something that every member felt vested in,” said Gary Kodner, a Kol Rinah board member who helped in the effort to purchase one of the Journey’s churches, located at 7701 Maryland Avenue. 

The effort to find a home dates back to 2012, when the synagogues agreed to merge. BSKI moved out of its building on Linden Avenue in Richmond Heights into Shaare Zedek’s at 829 N. Hanley Road the following year. It was expected to be a temporary move. 

If Kol Rinah were to stay on Hanley Road, members would remain attached to their for mer congregations, said Kodner, who has served as president of each but belonged to Shaare Zedek before the merger.

“It would be like two people getting married. Neither one is going to want to live with the other’s parents,” said Kodner, 60, a graphic designer and Jewish Light immediate past president.

The synagogue leaders started negotiations with the Journey more than a year ago when they put the former Shaare Zedek building on the market and church leaders expressed an interest. In discussing a deal, members of Kol Rinah said they would need a place to move, which led to the idea of a swap.

Mitch Shenker, president of Kol Rinah, said the congregation was interested in the church building primarily because of its location in Clayton. 

The synagogue is working with local architectural firms and will make significant renovations to the property, but plans are still in the early stages. 

Shenker declined to provide figures on the cost of the purchase and renovations but said the congregation plans to launch a fundraising campaign early next year.

“When we’re done, it’s not going to look anything like you see it today,” said Shenker, 63, an insurance agent.

The church, which typically has three services on Sundays, is a smaller space than Kol Rinah’s, but the synagogue is looking for similar flexibility that would allow multiple services, leaders say.

“We want to build something that is going to work for us 365 days a year, not just three days a year,” Shenker said, referring to the High Holidays. 

In addition Kol Rinah has reached an agreement to sell the former BSKI building to a real estate developer who plans to build town homes on the site. The Richmond Heights City Council must still rezone the land, Kodner said. 

The congregation also plans to open a day care center at the church site. Kol Rinah Rabbi Noah Arnow said he thinks that it will serve a significant need among young Jewish families who live in the eastern part of St. Louis County. 

The congregation sent a letter announcing the deal to members last week, and Arnow planned to discuss it during Kol Nidre services on erev Yom Kippur.

Arnow called the move as “an amazing opportunity, not just for Kol Rinah, but for the St. Louis Jewish community, to have a presence in Clayton,” where there has not been a synagogue since Kneseth Israel merged with Brith Sholom in 1960.

But Arnow, who started leading the synagogue a year ago, also acknowledged that the move, which will be the second one for BSKI members, will be difficult.

A number of members have left since the merger, said Shenker, who did not provide specifics. But the congregation has recently seen its membership increase and has 410 members. 

“Leaving any home, whether it’s a residence or business — certainly for a congregation — that you’ve been in for many years, it’s a loss,” said Arnow, who moved here from Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey. “That’s been hard for a lot of people, and it’s going to be hard when we leave the building we’re in right now.”

Dr. Gerald Cohen, 90, had been a member of Shaare Zedek for more than six decades and, for 15 years, has opened the synagogue on Hanley Road each weekday morning for services and breakfast. He supported the merger.

“That had to be,” the retired podiatrist said.

But Cohen said he wishes that the proposal to swap buildings with the church had been brought to the congregation before the board agreed to the deal. When the congregations were considering merging, 90 percent of the 250 Shaare Zedek members supported it, but there has been no vote on this plan. 

“Change is not something older people aspire to, and this is a pretty drastic change. Frankly it came as a little bit of a surprise,” said Cohen, who joined Shaare Zedek when he married his wife, Marion, a lifetime member who is 86.

However, the couple will support the move.

Marion Cohen said, “If that’s what they think will make the congregation viable, as loyal members of the synagogue we will support it.”