NHBZ breaks ground for new shul

Younger members of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion don hard hats for the ceremonial groundbreaking for the congregation’s new shul, which will be built on Price Road near Old Bonhomme.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

After a decade of working, planning and fundraising, construction is set to begin on the first synagogue ever built in the City of Olivette.

Despite spongy ground, hordes of dive-bombing dragonflies and the heat of a muggy July morning, dozens of well-wishers joined congregants from Nusach Hari B’nai Zion to break ground on a two-acre tract behind the Logos School at Price and Old Bonhomme roads which will soon be home to the Orthodox shul’s new building. Participants, who included Jewish Federation executive vice-president Barry Rosenberg and officials from Logos, were on hand to hear brief remarks from Rabbi Ze’ev Smason and synagogue leaders who read a letter of congratulations conveyed from the mayor of Olivette. The crowd then posed for photos with shovels at the site.

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“Look around. Each one of us beaming, celebrating, with a common comment, ‘I can’t believe we’re finally here,'” Bob Kaiser, president of the congregation, told the assembled onlookers.

Rabbi Smason found significance in the idea of breaking ground, noting that it is dirt, which holds the potential to create new growth.

“After all, what is this new synagogue that we are embarking upon building if not something that is brimming with potential,” he said to the group, “potential for members of the community who attend, potential for the City of Olivette and potential for the entire Jewish community.”

Realizing that potential has meant a lengthy and at times challenging road for the 105-year-old synagogue. The $1.9-million facility has long been in the planning stages and seen various redesigns. The land was acquired several years ago. Present blueprints envision a two-story, 12,000-square-foot building set into the side of small slope adjacent to Logos School with an additional parking lot and entrance onto Price Road. The edifice will feature a joined sanctuary and social hall, children’s room, chapel, tea lounge and multipurpose space for educational facilities as well as separate kitchens for meat and dairy preparation. Because of the terrain, ground level access will be possible on both floors of the structure. Work will start as soon as permits are issued and is expected to be complete by sometime this winter.

Some were emotional about a moment that’s been a long time in coming. Evelyn Marbain, a member of the congregation for a decade, didn’t mince words in expressing her feelings. “I think it’s a miracle,” said the 79-year-old Chesterfield resident. “With everything that they had to go through, all the troubles and trepidations. Thank God it finally came to this and I’m glad I was here to see it.”

Interviewed after his own remarks to the crowd, Smason used similar language.

“There are big miracles and there are small miracles,” said Smason, who has led the congregation since 1999. “Big miracles we don’t see very often these days but on occasion if we open our eyes we can see a small miracle. This is nothing less than a small miracle, the realization of the dreams of many people who have worked very hard for quite awhile and the realization of a personal dream of being able to do something that hasn’t been done before in the City of Olivette.”

Others felt the facility marked the opening of a fresh era for the synagogue.

“I think it’s going to bring new membership,” said Jay Pepose, a Town and Country resident who has been with the shul for three years. “I think it’s going to encourage people to revisit their Judaism, reflect on it and participate in it.”

His wife Susan Feigenbaum agreed.

“This synagogue has a vitality about it that now will be spread to the broader community of Olivette, to the Jewish community overall,” she said.

Alan Haber, an Olivette resident, said he felt NHBZ’s new location could help draw in new congregants from other cities, especially with its proximity to Jewish educational institutions and the Ladue School District.

“I think it’s going to have a fantastic impact,” Haber said. “The people who come here are not only going to have a great spiritual facility but they will have places to live that are affordable. Some of the other synagogues are in areas that are now quite expensive.”

For Kaiser, Sunday’s events had special meaning. In fact, the congregation president moved to his current residence envisioning this day would come.

“We joined just after the synagogue announced they were purchasing this piece of property and we built a home on the next street over in anticipation of the synagogue being built,” he said. “If these trees weren’t here, you’d see our house.”

For the time being, congregants continue to worship at NHBZ’s present location on Olive Boulevard in University City. Originally, they had planned to stay there only through last year’s High Holidays but an accepted contract on the building fell through. As a result, the congregation is still seeking a buyer but was able to secure sufficient financing from the bank as they wait for the property to sell in a challenging real estate market.

NHBZ is also still raising money for the construction project itself. Interviewed after the event, congregant Menachem Szus, who also spoke during the ceremony, said the shul has brought in almost $1 million but hopes to raise a half million to $1 million more.

“The capital campaign was going fantastic and then something called the economy struck and people were holding back a little bit,” he said. “But it’s also been surprising that quite a few people have stepped forward despite the economy.”

Smason said that even with the setbacks posed by tight credit markets and economic troubles, Sunday’s event showed that there is reason to celebrate.

“In this economy, there are not many shuls breaking ground these days, so we consider ourselves to be very blessed and very fortunate,” he said.