Looking back: The St. Louis Jewish Light in the 1980s

The St. Louis Jewish Light in the 1980s

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

For a decade that had such a strong cultural identity, it may seem strange that no one issue dominated the pages of the Jewish Light during the 1980s. No defining theme brought the period into focus. Women were settling into new roles. Demographics were changing the face of the Jewish family. The Mideast began the era in the midst of a peace process and ended it in the throes of an Intifada. Meanwhile, immigrants from Ethiopia and the Soviet Union were creating new challenges and opportunities in both Israel and the United States.

Indeed, the status of Ethiopian Jewry was a growing issue in the Jewish State and one that echoed all the way to St. Louis. An early 1985 ad for the local Jewish Federation campaign is emblazoned with a picture of a Kippot-clad African with the quote “Do not separate me from the Chosen, the Joy, the Light, the Splendor. Let me see the Light of Israel.”

The following edition featured a front-page story on the topic.

“They arrive in the Jewish State ‘quiet, proud, happy and beautiful, regal in their rags,’” read a quote from one commentator. A teacher spoke of the challenge of imparting Hebrew when the bulk of the students had never learned to read or write any language or even associate sounds with written symbols. Others describe a group both hungry and scarred by experience but filled with great self-possession, calm and dignity.

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“Because of the traumatic journey, it’s only those who are highly motivated and fired with idealism who come,” said another high school educator. “They constitute a vital resource that mustn’t be wasted.”

In late 1984, the Jewish Light weighed in on the issue, noting that, not just Ethiopian Jews, but Ethiopians of all kinds needed Jewish help and support.

“As many as six million lives – a figure with chilling significance to the Jewish people – are in jeopardy from the horrible famine which has affected Ethiopia and which threatens to engulf much of the African continent,” it wrote.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Soviet Jewish immigration continued to dominate the headlines. The decade’s early years showed a marked decline in Soviet Jews leaving the Communist state but the tide would accelerate with the U.S.S.R’s eventual collapse.

The year 1985 marked other milestones locally. The Light announced in January that the first two Jewish Hospital babies born from in vitro fertilization had been brought into the world. It was a coup for the institution, which even put up a banner over the entrance to the parking garage reading: “It’s a boy…and a girl!” to mark the births of David Adam Klarfeld and Michelle Librach.

Israel, Lebanon and Meir Kahane

Coincidentally, the same issue also marked Israel’s departure from Lebanon, a multi-year conflict that generated big headlines three years earlier. A June 1982 issue editorialized hopefully that Israel’s invasion of its northern neighbor could blunt the PLO’s military threat.

“If a stable and secure Lebanon would join Egypt and Israel in the Camp David peace process along with responsible Palestinian elements willing to make peace with Israel, everyone would be the winner,” the Light said, noting a desire for the bloodshed to be as limited as possible.

Unfortunately, the war became a complex morass of ugly violence and Israel’s departure two and a half years later was marked by the paper accordingly in an editorial that mourned hundreds of dead Israelis and noted the more than half-million dollar a day cost of the conflict to the Jewish State. Calling the withdrawal a “welcome step,” the Light said that the initial purpose of the invasion – to push back the PLO – was a valid one.

“When Israel went beyond the original mission of restoring peace to the Galilee and became involved in the fratricidal internal politics of Lebanon, the conflict and Israel’s role became one of the most divisive issues in Israel’s brief history,” it opined.

The facing page to that editorial also featured another familiar face from the pages of the Jewish Light in 1980s, that of Meir Kahane, the controversial Jewish nationalist who came to town to propound ideas which included expulsion of the Arabs, the prohibition of sex between Israeli Jews and Arabs and the belief that democracy and the Jewish State were mutually exclusive concepts. Speaking at Washington University, Kahane’s fiery address took place in front of nearly three dozen silent protesters as he said that the Arabs hoped to take over Israel through the Right of Return.

“If he can’t destroy it through bullets, he will do it through birthrate,” said Kahane.

Students gave mixed reviews to the presentation. One law student referred to him as a “disgrace to his people” while another audience member expressed some agreement but chided him for an “extremist, arrogant manner.” However, a friendlier listener took a different view.

“There was very little to answer him,” said one senior. “The people standing out front may have listened to him, but they didn’t have answers.”

Nearly six years later, Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian who would later go on to be convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

New beginnings

The first half of the decade brought continuing progress for women in the Jewish community, particularly in the Conservative community, which began ordaining female rabbis during the period.

A March 1980 issue of the Light noted a gathering of 200 in front of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to call for ordination. The organization, entitled the Group for the Rabbinical Ordination of Women (GROW), was there to put pressure on the JTS. As one put it, “It is a major social revolution, we cannot afford to sit it out.”

Two months later, the group gathered again and the Rabbinical Assembly backed ordination for the first time in a story that made the front page of the Light.

That year was a big one for life on the Millstone Campus as well. Ground was broken in January 1980 for the CHAI apartments while the new mikvah and Vaad were dedicated in June. Solomon Schechter Day School would open the following year and, by the mid-1980s, Central Reform Congregation would be organized.

Unique events were coming online as well. The same year as the Vaad’s dedication, a Lois Caplan column from May noted the creation of the first Senior Olympics. Caplan lauded the games, now a tradition for more than three decades, as a great way for seniors to compete and show their skills.

“A busy man doesn’t find time. He makes time to do it,” said 75-year-old Morey Gluskoter, a swimming competitor that Caplan described as “a dapper, slightly graying youthful guy in a blue blazer.”

“My philosophy is ‘Use your body or you lose it,’” added Gluskoter. “There’s no reason to get old. There’s no harm in getting older.”

The beginning of issues we face today

Unfortunately, the new issues coming to the fore in St. Louis and elsewhere were not always happy ones. The scourge of AIDS was the topic of a January 1988 JCCA forum. A local physician dispelled myths that the ailment could be transmitted by shaking hands or sneezing or through bed linens.

Others at the event worked to raise general awareness of the topic.

“I often feel that we Jews are hoping that AIDS will be like the plagues in Egypt and ‘pass over’ our Jewish homes, but the sad truth is that it won’t, it hasn’t, it isn’t,” said Rabbi Gaylia Rooks of Shaare Emeth. “And it is up to us to decide how we will react as Jews to this frightening disease.”

Demographic changes were also a source of concern as it became increasingly obvious that the Jewish community was an aging one in which families were having children later or not at all.

I have thought about the declining birthrate,” said a parent who had a child later in life in a 1980 article. “I hate the thought of it; I hate to see the Jewish race die out. But on a purely selfish basis I don’t want to have five or six kids to help the population.”

“I don’t look at not having children as necessarily selfish,” said a young married woman who planned on remaining childless. “I don’t think it’s wrong to want the best for yourself. Although you know you have to make sacrifices in this life, that’s too big of a sacrifice to make if you don’t think you’re parent material.”

One incident that prompted a heated response from Jewish Light readers was Jesse Jackson’s now infamous anti-Jewish slur.

“…it brought back bitter memories for me,” read one letter from 1984, “for I had been called a ‘Hymie’ many years ago – by a fellow Navy man during WWII. It hurt then. It hurts now.”

Mideast peace

As always, the halting Middle East peace process was a common fixture in the pages of the paper. The early days of the decade were a tense but hopeful time taken up primarily with the implementation of the Camp David accord with Egypt, a situation complicated by Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination. But by the latter half of the 1980s, the focus had shifted to the Palestinians yet again, particularly with the 1987 launch of the First Intifada.

The Light’s op-ed page grew increasingly frustrated with the machinations of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

“Ever since Arafat recited the mere words required to open the U.S.-PLO dialogue much of the world’s media has accepted his new ‘moderation’ at face value,” read a 1989 editorial lauding an anti-Arafat A.M. Rosenthal column in the New York Times. “It is refreshing to read the clear-eyed views of Rosenthal who is not so easily fooled. Neither, he says, are the Israelis who are not ready to risk their nation’s existence on the empty words of the PLO chairman.”

At times, St. Louisans got an unwelcome taste of Mideast tensions. A May 1982 issue chronicled the Western Wall bar mitzvah of local boy Michael Raskas, an event THAT went smoothly until a commotion broke out nearby.

“I asked one of our guests if he thought we had time to finish the ceremony,” recalled Stanley Raskas, the boy’s father. “Before he could answer, we heard the sound of gunfire from the Temple Mount area.”

The shots were the work of an American Jew who murdered a Muslim with an M-16 that day.

In spite of the violence, Raskas said he still believed it was a good decision to hold the ceremony there and, except for the incident, they always felt secure.

“Israel and Jerusalem and even the West Bank are normally completely safe and tourists need have no fear about visiting Israel,” he said.

Meanwhile, the case of a bar mitzvah shooting closer to home was drawing to a close. A 1984 article in the Jewish Light spoke of police suspicion falling on Joseph Paul Franklin in connection with a horrific 1977 killing in the Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel parking lot when a sniper opened fire on a crowd of bar mitzvah attendees with a telescope-equipped hunting rifle, killing one.

Richmond Heights police said Franklin, who was already in prison for the murder of two black men in Utah, was now the prime suspect in the case. Franklin would later confess to that murder as well as a host of others. He still sits on Missouri’s death row.