PROFILE/ADINAH RASKAS A portrait in commitment and courage

BY PAM DROOG JONES

SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Everyone who knows Adinah Raskas knows she has a secret recipe for honey challah. She makes the challahs every Friday for Shabbat dinner. She even sent them to her five children while they were in college. But slightly more than two years ago, when Raskas became seriously ill, challah-baking, like many other things she loved, ground to a halt. “My youngest son, who’s in med school now, missed my challah so much, he called me and I walked him through the steps to make it,” Raskas says. “The minute I could stand up long enough to bake challah, I did it.”

Getting to that point, however, was a true challenge. At first Raskas was confined to bed. Eventually she was able to use a wheelchair. “I’d see people walking, and I’d say to my husband, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever walk again,'” Raskas says. But with determination and hard work, she graduated to a walker, then a cane. Finally she was able to walk unaided. But she required energy-draining dialysis treatments three times a week.

Then, on Feb. 9, the miracle Raskas had been praying for happened: She received a kidney, donated by Cathy Cohn (see sidebar). Raskas’ grandson and Cohn’s son, both 10 years old, are good friends. “Cathy called me, and as I remember it, she said something about wanting to help me not be so miserable,” Raskas says. “We talked about it a lot. It was a long process.” Both Raskas and Cohn had to go through a number of tests to make sure the kidney would be a match. “It was close enough that the medical team was willing to do it,” Raskas says.

Today both women are steadily recovering. Raskas gives Cohn a report on her kidney nearly every day, she says. “She gave me a gift of life, and that’s the highest form of tzedakkah,” Raskas says. “It’s hard to know how to respond, except to be grateful and thankful that someone was kind enough to give such a precious gift.” The experience convinced her of the power of prayer, Raskas says. “I tell people their prayers helped save me and I honestly believe it,” she says. “I think about life in a different way now. I feel like the Jewish community embraced me and that made a real difference.”

Love of Teaching

The former Adinah Waltuch was born in St. Louis and graduated from University City Senior High School. “My parents were very German and wouldn’t hear of sending a girl out of town to a Jewish high school,” she says. One day at synagogue she saw Heschel Raskas, an acquaintance who was several years older than she was. “He was home on a break from college,” Raskas says. “He came over to me and asked me to the Symphony!” She was 18 when they got married.

Adinah and Heschel had a lot in common. They both came from Orthodox homes. Their grandparents lived in the same neighborhood in Vienna. Their parents were friends and also instrumental in establishing the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy, which they both attended. The Raskas’ five children also are graduates, and their seven grandchildren currently are students there.

“To me it’s very special that both of our families were Orthodox. I didn’t have to make a transition. I just went from one Orthodox family to my own,” Raskas says. “Each family is a bit different, and it’s interesting to see what we each brought to the marriage, although we came from the same walk of life. But coming from kosher homes, going to day school, that made it so much easier for us. It helped make difficult decisions easier.”

One of those decisions was to move to Boston, where Heschel attended MIT, then graduate school at Harvard. Originally Raskas had planned to attend college in Israel. “I was very Zionistic,” she says. “I got accepted to Hebrew University but my parents didn’t want to send a 17-year old to Israel.” Instead, Raskas attended Washington University for a year, then continued her education at Boston University. She had two children by the time she earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology. “In the 1960s they thought I was a wayward child,” she says. “Nobody else in the entire university was pregnant. I had to get signed permission from my parents, who were paying the tuition.”

When Heschel completed his education, the growing family moved back to St. Louis. “We felt the kids should be with their grandparents,” Raskas says. Her husband worked as a scientist for many years, then took over the family business, Raskas Dairy, which was sold to Schreiber Foods of Wisconsin two years ago.

Raskas earned a master’s degree in social psychology and an A.B.D. in administration of higher education. Her first teaching job was at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. “Someone suggested I apply there, and they hired me to teach sociology,” she says. Next Raskas taught at Washington University until its Sociology Department was closed. Then she moved on to Saint Louis University.

Sociology attracted her, she says, “because I’ve always been interested in how society works, especially families. Of course the definition of family in the last several years has gone through a total change. But I think being an Orthodox Jew has helped me even more than sociology because I believe you are raised with certain values and you apply them to your own family. That has more value than all the education you could possibly have.”

Raskas’ teaching career lasted 20-plus years, until she became ill. “I loved it, especially teaching freshmen. I think you get a pulse of what’s going on in society when you teach college freshmen,” she says. “It’s very rewarding when students come back and tell you, ‘I got into my chosen career because of you.'” Raskas may return to teaching eventually. “I’m thinking about it,” she says.

In the Community

The Raskases have been active participants in the St. Louis Jewish community for decades. “We both were so involved in community organizations and events, our kids will tell you we were gone every night,” she says. “But our parents were part of the Jewish community and so we were too.”

Raskas has been on the Jewish Light board of directors for about 15 years. In addition to her editorial input, about 12 years ago she suggested to Editor Emeritus Robert Cohn that board meetings begin with a D’var Torah. “Adinah is an absolutely exemplary person,” Cohn says. “She deserves to feel great satisfaction at the insights she shares with everyone around the table from all kinds of Jewish backgrounds who benefit from her wisdom and interesting insights into the Torah portion of the week.” Raskas notes her husband, who is president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, also opens his meetings with a D’var Torah. “It’s just a few words to make sure we’re all connected in a very special way,” she says.

As chair of the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library commission for several years, Raskas sees the library as “a very special place,” she says. “Every book in there has something to do with Judaism. And when you go there you see all kinds of people, like Russians, people who only speak Yiddish, children there for holiday programs. It’s a real gathering place.” Library Director Barbara Raznick says, “Adinah has been an incredible asset to the library as well as a wonderful partner for me. Under her leadership we got our Web page online, increased our programming and became more visible in the community.” Raznick adds, “I can always count on her for a truthful opinion of the books I purchase for the library.”

In addition, Raskas’ fame as a cook extends beyond honey challah. She contributes recipes for the “Full Deal Holiday Meal” in the e-Kitchen section of the Jewish Federation’s Web site, www.jewishinstlouis.org. Her recipes have appeared in cookbooks and she has won several prizes for cheesecake, among other specialties. Right now she is putting the finishing touches on a cookbook. “Cooking is so rewarding,” Raskas says. “For Friday night dinner with your family or company, if you’ve done the cooking it’s a nice Shabbat. It’s one more reason why Judaism is so special.”

Perhaps even more rewarding, however, is Raskas’ connection with others in the community who are ill. “Since I got better, people with certain illnesses call me and ask me if I can tell them something that will help them get through it,” Raskas says. “I talk to them and try to give them hope. I remind them how important it is to have family around you, no matter how you look or feel.” Among those in contact with Raskas is Linda Crouse. “Adinah has been wonderful, very caring. She has been so helpful to me through my illness,” she says. “Adinah understands when I talk to her, and she has been very encouraging. I admire her a lot.”

Raskas also is a member of the boards of the Anti-Defamation League, Central Agency for Jewish Education and Ohr Atid, which serves special needs Jewish children and their families. She also was an officer in the Jewish Federation’s Business and Professional division and served on an allocation panel.

Still Learning

A self-described avid reader, Raskas says, “I take out as many books from the Brodsky Library as I possibly can; fiction, nonfiction, it doesn’t matter.” At the moment she’s reading a series of historical novels about women in the Bible. “They are excellent,” she says. “A lot of the stories are fiction but you get a good idea of their lives.” Raskas also enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren (including two sets of twins) and doing needlepoint.

In the future, as she continues to grow stronger, Raskas says she would like to “travel more, maybe teach more, take on a few more activities.” Above all, she wants to continue to study and learn about Judaism. At her synagogue, Young Israel, she takes classes in Jewish Women In Law and Hebrew.

“Judaism is a lifelong learning process,” Raskas says. “I think it’s important to get as much Jewish education as you can. It will help you make much more intelligent decisions.”

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