Lay-led Shabbat St. Louis celebrates 10 years

Participants gathered at Temple Israel for the 2013 Shabbat St. Louis service. This year’s Shabbat St. Louis takes place March 31 at Temple Israel. File photo: Kristi Foster


The last day of March will mark the first day of a new decade for Shabbat St. Louis. 

Ron Cytron, 59, helped initially to create the communitywide gathering, which brought together local Reform congregations for a lay-led service on the Shabbat during Passover. This year, seven Jewish groups across the area are planning the 10th anniversary Shabbat St. Louis, which will be held March 31 at Temple Israel (see infobox for full details). 

Joining TI in the planning are four other Reform congregations — Temple Emanuel, Shaare Emeth, United Hebrew and Temple Israel of Alton, Ill. — as well as Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community.

Shabbat St. Louis, which typically attracts 100 to 200 area Jews for a day of Torah study, music, a service and Passover Kiddush, was originally held at B’nai El in 2009. It has since rotated from congregation to congregation. TI was last host in 2013. 

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Cytron recalls that it took a measure of belief just to get things off the ground a decade ago.

“At our very first meeting, we weren’t sure it was going to happen,” the Ladue resident and Shaare Emeth congregant said. “Some of the congregations were not sure we should do it without rabbis organizing it and leading it. But we tried it for one year, and it was very successful so we just kept doing it.”

Cytron said the inspiration for that first event came from a speech by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who called for greater religious engagement on Saturday mornings that, in Reform temples, were increasingly focused on bar and bat mitzvah events.

“Our members who come to pray with the community often sit in the back of the sanctuary and feel like interlopers in their own congregation,” Yoffie said in 2007. “On Erev Shabbat, we invite members in, but on Shabbat morning, we drive them away.”

Cytron said there were also other reasons to invent the lay-led event.

“One of the original ideas was to give our rabbis the day off because they hardly get a Saturday off,” he said.

Today, the service remains led by congregants without clergy, though rabbis do take part in the Torah study beforehand.

“The best part of it is having everyone in the room singing and praying,” Cytron said. “It feels to me like a camp experience from when I was a kid.”

Rabbi Jim Bennett of Shaare Emeth has participated in the Torah study but said the fact that the overall event is headed by laity is the true strength of Shabbat St. Louis. When he attends, he listens, prays and sits with the congregants.

“It is really beautiful to see the members of the congregations working together to create a Shabbat morning service that they work on and they lead,” he said.

Lesley Loebner of Temple Emanuel, who is co-chairing the event with UH’s Candy Zemon, said she always looks forward to the gathering.

“I think it is important because it builds bridges and it builds community,” Loebner said. “Normally, we worship in our own house of worship, wherever we belong as a member or wherever we go as a guest. On that Saturday morning once a year, regardless of what congregation you belong to, everybody is just there worshiping in a similar manner together.”

Loebner has co-chaired Shabbat St. Louis for three years but has been involved since the beginning.

“We have a following,” she said. “We have people who really love attending, and they come back every year. Then we have people who come for the first time because they are participating or because somebody mentioned it to them, and they are always just enthralled with what takes place that morning.”

Carol Wolf Solomon, who has been on the planning committee from the event’s inception, said everyone enjoys the service.

“My favorite part is the sense of community that we can bring many congregations together, each of whom has different customs, different worship styles,” the Shir Hadash congregant said. “We can come together as one.”

This year’s event will have one sad note. Wolf Solomon said that Carol Wolf (no relation) passed away late last year. A longtime member of the planning committee, she delivered the D’var Torah several times.

Solomon wrote in an email to the Jewish Light: “Carol loved and looked forward to Shabbat St. Louis each year, the music, the intergenerational participation of children and adults in the service, and the beauty of the community coming together as one to celebrate Shabbat and Passover.”