Long drive from small-town Judaism to Temple Israel director

Inside her office at Temple Israel, Rachel Andreasson has a painting illustrating her family’s business, which is connected to convenience stores such as On the Run.  Photo: Eric Berger

BY ERIC BERGER, STAFF WRITER

Rachel Andreasson and her family have logged more miles traveling to Congregation Temple Israel than most of its members. So it’s a good thing that they’ve been able to stop at some of the Missouri gasoline stations they operate during the hour-plus drive along Interstate 44 from the Cuba-Sullivan area to the Reform synagogue in Creve Coeur.

One of the owners of 65 convenience stores around Missouri, Andreasson has managed to stay connected to Judaism despite a number of factors that have pulled other Jews away from the religion. Not only have she and her family been some of the only Jews in small towns, where Jewish life has often diminished in recent decades, but Andreasson and her mother both married men who were not Jewish. 

Nonetheless, Andreasson has not stayed on the outskirts of the Jewish community. She recently became executive director of Temple Israel. The synagogue, she said, is part of what kept Andreasson and her family close to the Jewish community.

“I feel like it’s the beauty of Reform Judaism — this tolerance and acceptance and inclusion — and I feel like Temple Israel exemplifies that,” said Andreasson, who became TI’s executive director in October. 

Now, after an uncertain few years in her professional life and in the life of Temple Israel, she says she has found a home in working to ensure that the congregation remains a vital Jewish place. 

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“I just see that there is more opportunity for Jewish engagement and more opportunity for community engagement,” said Andreasson, who has three children.

The Andreasson and Wallis families have defied the odds. The number of American Jews who belong to congregations or are otherwise involved in religious life has decreased significantly in recent decades, and there is at least some connection between that phenomenon and the increasing rate of intermarriage, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews.

Andreasson’s mother, Lynn Wallis, grew up attending Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (BSKI) in the St. Louis suburbs but met a Baptist man, Bill Wallis of Leasburg, Mo. They eloped at a courthouse in 1968 and decided they wanted to raise their children Jewish. Several months later, Rabbi Alvan Rubin of Temple Israel married them, and Bill later converted. 

Andreasson recalls her dad driving her and her three younger brothers from Cuba to Temple Israel for Sunday school. 

“I just remember us fighting on the way home and my dad saying, ‘If I have to pull this car over and spank you!’ ” Andreasson said and laughed.

They could have pulled into one of their gas stations. Bill Wallis started working at age 13 to support his family after his father, who worked for an asphalt company, fell off a scaffold and died. Bill worked at Onondaga Cave State Park and met a man who owned gas stations in Sullivan and started working for him, eventually taking over his stations. He purchased another station in Cuba and gradually acquired more. 

Wallis Cos. now owns stores affiliated with a number of brands, including On the Run and Dirt Cheap. Andreasson grew up working for the company and being involved at Temple Israel. She was a camper and later a counselor at Camp Kee Tov. Still, she was part of one of the only Jewish families in Cuba or Sullivan, which wasn’t “always comfortable,” she said.

But “I feel like it’s a good education,” said Andreasson, whose aunt started a program to do Hanukkah presentations at schools in the small towns. 

Judaism was an important part of Andreasson’s life and, as such, she “went to school out of state” at Tulane University “specifically to meet a Jewish person.”

Instead, she met Thomas Andreasson, who was not Jewish. She told him, “There’s one deal-breaker for me, and that’s that I want to raise my kids Jewish.”

They married at Temple Israel and moved to Florida. 

Then, about 25 years ago, Andreasson’s parents came to Florida and told her they were acquiring 47 Mobil properties. They asked her to rejoin the company. She moved to Sullivan and held a number of positions, including serving as director of human resources, until succeeding her mom as CEO last January. 

But for her mom, the company was “a big part of her life and identity and we are blessed because she is a young 71 year old,” Andreasson said. Her mom wanted to continue working for the company.

“We ultimately decided that I would leave,” she said. “I’m just a believer that all things happen for a reason.” 

Andreasson remained closely connected to Temple Israel despite the literal distance. Rabbi Michael Alper has come to Sullivan to participate in Andreasson children’s high school graduation ceremonies, which made “my kids feel a lot more comfortable,” Andreasson said.

And Andreasson had been chairperson of the human resources committee at Temple Israel. After some “personnel issues,” the congregation president asked Andreasson to interview staff members as they considered hiring a new executive director, she said. Over the summer, Andreasson decided to leave the volunteer position so she could “put my name in the hat” to become executive director.

Andreasson’s mother, Lynn Wallis, who is now president and chairman of the family company, said: “I think she will bring so much to the temple, not that it’s not a wonderful place already, but as far as the business end of it, she will bring a lot of structure and processes that the congregation needs because you really try to focus on the lifecycle events and spiritual side of things, and I think Rachel really knows the business end of it.”

Andreasson takes over a synagogue that four years ago considered and then rejected merging with Congregation Shaare Emeth. 

JoAnne Levy, who was then president of Temple Israel, said at the time:  “Rather than find ourselves down the road in” a diminished position, “we decided to explore a new way of creating a Jewish community from equal positions of strength.” 

The congregations decided, however, to “pursue independent paths that accentuate their respective strengths. Both congregations are strong, vibrant and positioned for future success,” according to a statement after the merger talks ended.

The Temple Israel congregation has since invested in its  property, such as renovating the education center and bathrooms. 

Andreasson said she would like to reach more Jewish families who send their children to the Temple Israel preschool but do not belong to the congregation. She also wants to collaborate more with other Jewish organizations.

“I’m just super optimistic about TI’s future,” she said. 

Temple Israel senior Rabbi Amy Feder is excited about Andreasson joining the staff. 

“One of the things the Wallis family is known for, besides being a big and kind family that everyone seems to know and like, is that they live in Sullivan and it’s a shlep for them to get here,” Feder said. 

“And I always heard that even when Rachel and her siblings were kids, their Judaism and Temple Israel was so important to them, they were here for Sunday school every week without fail. And they were coming from more than an hour away and would be here even if it was snowing.” 

Feder said she recalls saying to Andreasson, after Andreasson expressed an interest in the job: 

“If I hadn’t been wearing a dress, I would have done a cartwheel. We could not have wished for a better person for this position.”