‘People Rabbi’ Jeffrey Stiffman celebrates 50-year calling

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman

By Richard Jackoway, Special to the Jewish Light

When Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman arrived in University City to become assistant rabbi at Shaare Emeth, he thought it would be just two or three years before he and his wife, Arlene, headed back to the East Coast.

Fifty years later, now-Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Stiffman is being honored for his half-century in the rabbinate, both at Shaare Emeth and nationally. 

“One of the reasons they hired me is that I mentioned I was fourth-generation Reform,” Stiffman recalled. “They thought, ‘That’s good, he’s not going to raise waves.’ ”

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It didn’t exactly work out like that. Not only was Stiffman was very different from then-Senior Rabbi Julius J. Nodel but, in the late 1960s, Shaare Emeth, like society as a whole, was going through many changes. As the Jewish population migrated west, many congregants were leaving U. City’s Shaare Emeth for Creve Coeur’s Temple Israel.

“I remember board meetings where they would announce 20 resignations a month –  ‘Going to Temple Israel. Going to Temple Israel. Going to Temple Israel,’ ” said Stiffman, who quickly founded the Young Adult Congregation in 1965. It was designed to be a congregation within a congregation and an attempt to stem the loss of younger members.

A group of temple leaders felt strongly that something needed to be done. They had raised $1 million in pledges to buy land at Ladue and Ballas roads, far from the U. City temple. But an even larger group felt the temple should stay put, particularly because leaving University City as the community was integrating would send the wrong message. 

As this struggle was growing, Stiffman had an opportunity to return to his native Baltimore in 1968, and he took it. But just 18 months later, with Nodel ailing, Shaare Emeth came calling again, this time with a promise of succession when Nodel left. That was an offer his Baltimore temple could not match, so Stiffman returned.

Through a loophole, Stiffman at 26 became the youngest rabbi of one of the largest Reform congregations in the nation — too young under the Reform Jewish Placement Commission rules to take over such a large congregation.

“But I had been brought back with the guarantee of succession,” he said. “So the placement director, who happened to be a very dear friend, said I was grandfathered in.” 

Stiffman joined Cantor Ed Fogel, also a young presence in what had been an aging congregation. 

“He was a big part of the growth of the congregation,” Stiffman said. “We were a young rabbi and cantor, and the music suddenly changed.” 

What Stiffman didn’t understand fully was how much worse the divisions in the congregation had become during his absence.

“In 1968, they had a vote to draw up plans to move the whole thing and leave U. City,” he said. “Luckily, I was in Baltimore at the time. They had a raucous meeting. But it was voted down. So I came back in 1970, and people weren’t talking to each other. “

By 1971, when Stiffman officially took over from Nodel, the leadership was ready to make another attempt to move. 

“We were hemorrhaging members,” Stiffman said. “Not only that, but the school went from about 1,400 to about 700. So a bunch of us put our heads together and said, ‘Why don’t we build a school?’ ”

The compromise — move the school, not yet the temple — was a success.

“We opened the school in 1974, and it was amazing, Stiffman said. “We had the Purim carnival out here for the first time. And where we used to have just the Sunday school kids and a few people, we were so swamped, we had run over to Dierbergs to get more food.”

The school started growing again, and soon the momentum was so strong that the congregation voted to move west. 

The current temple was completed in 1980, and it included a bit of history that the leadership was not fully aware of at the time. The shul was to include six floor-to-ceiling etched glass windows. The dean of Washington University’s College of Arts and Sciences said he knew a guy who could do the work.

“He said, ‘I have a friend who just opened his own place in Oregon, and one day he’s going to be known as the top glass blower in the world,’ ” Stiffman said. “Everybody said, ‘He has some buddy he’s trying to help.’ ”

Dale Chihuly came to the temple five or six times to work on the $50,000 commission. Some of his ideas were rejected by the temple’s design committee. Now, of course, Chihuly is regarded by many as the top glass blower in the world, and people come to Shaare Emeth just to see his windows, which are some of the largest glass windows in the world.

Ensconced in the new Shaare Emeth, the congregation grew not just in the size, but in impact.

In 1982, it made headlines by adding Assistant Rabbi Susan Talve as the first female congregational rabbi in St. Louis. Stiffman and Talve mentored Andrea Goldstein, who became a bat mitzvah at Shaare Emeth and is now an assistant rabbi there.

Goldstein said: “When I began working at Shaare Emeth, I am sure that Jeff had more confidence in me than I had in myself – and that meant the world to me. Without Jeff’s mentoring and influence and spirit, I would not be the rabbi I am today. 

“He taught me about what it means to be present for members of our congregation. He taught me what it means to show kindness by taking the time to remember the small details that make up our members’ lives.”

Also, under Stiffman’s leadership, the congregation reached out more to the non-Jewish community.

“I helped to move the congregation into more of a communal involvement,” Stiffman said. “We got involved in charities.”

In 1995, the congregation became the only synagogue to participate in the Room at the Inn program, which provides shelter for homeless women and children. In 1996, the temple board voted to rescind a decades-old policy that forbade the clergy from wearing tallit and kippah. And in 1997, Shaare Emeth forged a partnership with the Rock Church of St. Louis.

Those types of efforts are examples of what Stiffman’s daughter Cheryl Maayan sees as her one of her dad’s greatest attributes as a rabbi.

“He really believes that Judiasm propels us to improve the world,” said Maayan, who is the head of school at the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

Stiffman says the role of the rabbi and of synagogues has changed a lot in the past 50 years.

“When I first came, people came to hear the rabbi interpret the culture and current events in terms of Jewish insights,” Stiffman said. “I think the emphasis now is more on what’s called spirituality. It’s more on family and family activities and observances, rather than on group things. The emphasis is more on participation, rather than sitting and listening.”

The people are different, too.

“Now the majority of my membership is American born,” Stiffman said. “They aren’t immigrants. The majority is college graduates, professionals. There are people in the congregation who know more about many areas that I might have preached on than I do.”

Stiffman also credits “wonderful assistants and associates” throughout his tenure as rabbi in helping him to lead the congregation. 

“Jim Bennett was my assistant for nine years and then left and came back to succeed me,” he said. “There was a reservoir of love for him. He has really developed the congregation.”

As rabbi emeritus, Stiffman doesn’t come into the office as much, but he is still involved in performing some weddings and funerals. He says he feels fortunate to have been able, like Rabbi Nodel before him, to turn over the congregation to a former assistant.

And Bennett is similarly grateful to Stiffman.

“I learned from him about the importance of relationships, that people matter more than programs,” Bennett said. “Rabbi Stiffman taught me that a rabbi is first, a person, and that a good rabbi must strive to be a mensch. Jeffrey Stiffman is a great rabbi, a real person, and a wonderful mensch.”

Maayan remembers her dad’s retirement party for a quintessential Rabbi Stiffman moment.

“Everyone was nervous that this really was going to be hard for my dad because his life was really the congregation,” she recalled. “So he stepped up and said, ‘Everyone is asking me if I regret.’ Long pause. ‘I say nope, but Rabbi Bennett probably does.’ And everybody laughed and relaxed. That’s my dad. He has a wonderful way of defusing tension through humor.”

Retirement has given Stiffman time for his passions outside the synagogue. The Olivette resident plays the piano, goes ballroom dancing with Arlene, attends the theater, and spends as much time as he can with his three children and eight grandchildren.

In January, Stiffman was honored by the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis. On March 16, he and other rabbis with 50 years of tenure were recognized by the Central Conference of American Rabbis during the group’s annual convention in Philadelphia.

“Fifty years ago, I didn’t even know where St. Louis was,” he said. “Looking back, I feel very lucky to have moved here.”