Rabbi Skoff celebrates 50 years at BSKI

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

In 1970, when Cindy Payant was looking to convert to Judaism, she didn’t quite know where to go. Fortunately, as it turned out she didn’t have to go far.

“I came to my synagogue because it was at the end of my block,” recalled the former Catholic with a chuckle. “If I had been up the street from an Orthodox shul I probably would have wound up Orthodox.”

Instead, she wound up at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel – and began a new phase of her spiritual journey with the rabbi she would come to call an “excellent teacher.”

“I feel like I owe him so much because essentially without him I wouldn’t be Jewish,” Payant said. “It’s just such a huge part of my life.”

Payant, now 65 and living in University City, is one of many congregants who plan to be on hand at BSKI on Saturday to honor Benson Skoff, now the congregation’s rabbi emeritus, with a luncheon and tribute session after services. The event, which is open to the general public, is intended to mark Skoff’s half century of contributions to the St. Louis community.

Payant, who is in the midst of putting together a book for this weekend’s tribute, is hardly the only one who feels indebted to the congregation’s longtime spiritual leader.

“He’s been a wonderful rabbi for 50 years,” said Shirlene Baris, 73, of unincorporated St. Louis County. “He’s been very close to many, many families and he’s done many lifecycle events, not only for couples but for their children and grandchildren.”

Baris said that one of the things she admires most about Skoff is that, except for the High Holidays, the rabbi emeritus shuns the spotlight of the pulpit and chooses to sit with fellow worshippers instead.

“Every Saturday he’s there but he’s just another member of the congregation,” she said. “That impresses me.”

Baris said that some of Skoff’s most important achievements are a part of his interfaith efforts, which included an informal group of local clergy he put together and a weekly television show he produced and sometimes hosted called Confluence on Channel 4.

Baris’s husband Irl, 82, also has fond memories of Skoff. In one instance, during a confirmation class retreat several students decided to TP the rabbi’s room. Another member of the congregation cleaned the mess up before the rabbi arrived but Irl Baris didn’t feel it was necessary.

“I think he would have gotten a kick out of it,” Irl Baris said.

Not all the memories are happy ones. Irl Baris recalls well the importance of the rabbi’s leadership in the grim days after the 1977 shooting at the synagogue parking lot in which one man was gunned down by a white supremacist.

“It was a very difficult time,” Irl Baris said.

Rabbi Mordecai Miller, who took the reins at BSKI in 1991 after Skoff’s retirement, called his predecessor a scholar and “a treasured colleague” with whom he’d often enjoyed discussions on issues while driving en route to various rabbinic meetings.

“He obviously has devoted his life to this congregation,” Miller said. “I remember having Shabbas dinner with him when I was interviewing for the congregation. [His wife] Rosalind and he were just so hospitable and warm.”

For BSKI board president Rick Kodner, the most vivid memory of Skoff was listening to him during Havdalah after Yom Kippur.

“The synagogue was dark and it was like magic because he has such an outstanding voice,” he said. “No chazzan could ever hold a candle to him.”

Jewish learning was always the focus for Skoff. It still is. Without that, it’s impossible to do what Skoff identifies as the rabbi’s primary job, “making mensches.”

“The purpose of everything that you do is to cultivate people,” Skoff explained. “Our children aren’t born good or bad. They are born with potential. The purpose of the synagogue and a rabbi’s work is to cultivate the good part that you see in every human being.”

For Skoff, whose bachelors and masters degrees, as well as his doctorate, are all in the area of education, learning has always been central to rabbinic work. He still remembers growing up in Philadelphia, where his father, who used to wake him up at 6 a.m. for services, would often read Hebrew from the family’s many Judaic books. Later, while Skoff was still a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, he was named principal of his congregation’s religious school.

Even as he headed his own synagogue in Austin, Skoff taught Hebrew at the University of Texas. Worried that the classes would leave when he did, he made it a special point to extract a commitment from the incoming rabbi that he would carry them on. In fact, Skoff didn’t stop there.

“I even made him promise that when he leaves he made sure that the next head of the congregation would also be able to teach Hebrew,” he said.

To this day, the university still has a Hebrew program.

After stints at congregations in Minnesota and Michigan, Skoff finally found a home at Brith Sholom in 1959, the year before it merged with Kneseth Israel.

Meanwhile, his love of Jewish learning has spread to the family he and Rosalind, his wife of 58 years, raised here. Two of his five children are rabbis themselves. Both will speak at Saturday’s event and the rest will be in attendance along with many of his dozen grandchildren. He also has two great-grandchildren.

Rosalind passed away in 2004.

“The family that we built I give her the credit for,” he said. “I just helped her.”

Skoff has met his fair share of notable people during his time as a rabbi. While visiting Israel, he called Menachem Begin on the phone and found himself invited over for an impromptu one-hour chat at the future prime minister’s home.

In another instance, he got the chance to talk to Edward Teller, known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” while hosting a television program in St. Louis. He confronted Teller with complaints from critics that his work had led only to increased potential for human carnage. Teller’s response was immediate – and on target.

“He said that the first time people ever used iron, it was for weapons of war,” Skoff recalled. “Afterwards, we learned how to use it for constructive things. I thought that was the right answer. I couldn’t argue with that.”

Skoff, who headed the St. Louis Rabbinical Association’s radio and television committee, said that sometimes even he was surprised with the power TV had to promote dialogue. Once, while hosting Confluence, he spoke with representatives from both sides of the Yugoslavian civil war.

“These people who were enemies and would not speak to one another came together for this program,” he said. “Afterwards, they stayed together for awhile and they were talking to each other. I was amazed.”

But Skoff’s primary work wasn’t in the studio. It was in the pulpit where it always came back to the difficult task of mentsh manufacture. When young couples would marry, Skoff would always make it a point to tell them the story of the scholar Akiva, who had yet to achieve greatness when he married his wife Rachel but through her encouragement he became one of the foremost thinkers of his generation and she became a better person in the process. In the same way, Skoff said that he tells newlyweds to look for the best in each other and nurture those qualities.

It’s not much different from Skoff’s philosophy towards the congregation he headed for more than three decades.

“They should see in each other the good things that God gave them,” he said. “That’s what a synagogue is for. That’s what a rabbi is for.”

Reservations are preferred for Saturday’s luncheon. For more information, call 314-725-6230.


JCC Opens Registration for Local Organic Food CSA, Tuv Ha’Aretz

Registration is now open for the Jewish Community Center’s Jewish Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Project Tuv Ha’Aretz, in it’s second year, where you can pre-purchase a share of a farmer’s produce for an entire growing season, May through October 2010. The CSA guarantees the farmer a secure market and gives community individuals access to local, fresh organic produce at competitive prices, while helping to preserve farmland and build community. Tuv Ha’Aretz enables you to live a healthier lifestyle, helps to support local, organic farms, promotes the awareness of environmental issues in the Jewish community, and helps needy families gain access to healthy organic produce from donations to Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. Choose from three weekly produce pick-up locations across St. Louis. Registration deadline is Dec. 11, 2009. Tuv Ha’Aretz is a project of Hazon and the JCC’s Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Community Life in cooperation with JF &CS Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry and the Jewish Environmental Initiative, a project of JCRC. To register or for more information, visit www.jccstl.com or contact Sara Winkelman at 314-442-3268 or [email protected].

Nishmah’s Salon Series Continues with the Topic of Worry

Nishmah is hosting the second of its salon series — this month based on an article titled, “The Anatomy of Worry.” The discussion will address women’s specific “worries” — family, future, money, myself and everybody and everything else. Women can choose to attend either the evening or morning option: Tuesday, Nov. 10 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Kaldi’s Coffeehouse in the Chesterfield Valley (17211 Chesterfield Airport Road) or Wednesday, Nov. 11 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at Winslow’s Home in University City (7213 Delmar Boulevard).

The Nishmah Salon is a living room based discussion that affords women a unique opportunity to connect and engage with intelligent and curious women on topics of interest to us as women and Jews. This upcoming November salon will be facilitated by Ellen Schapiro (evening) and Ilene Joseph, LCSW (morning). Women of all ages are invited to participate.

Participation fee is $10 per salon. Articles are given upon registration and will also be available at the salon. RSVP is requested to Nishmah at 314-862-2777 or via email at [email protected] prior to the salon. Subsequent salons will be held in January, March and May. Visit www.nishmah.org for details.

CAJE offers 30-week course with Rabbi Shulman

Central Agency for Jewish Education is offering “Ethics of Jewish Living — Ethical Challenges for an Ethically Challenging Time,” a 30-week course led by Rabbi Moshe Shulman at Young Israel, 8101 Delmar Boulevard.

The class will explore topics such as: Jewish Approaches to Making Ethical Decisions, Ransoming Captives, Equity and Justice, End of Life Decisions, Power of the Spoken Word, Donating Organs before & After Death, and Jews and Gentiles. The course, sponsored by the Center for Adult Jewish Learning and CAJE, begins Monday, Nov. 2, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, contact Cyndee Levy at 314-442-3754 or [email protected].

Cooking class for kids in Chesterfield

The Cooking Class for Kids in Chesterfield is back and chef Chana’la Rubenfeld has many new and enticing recipes planned along with loads more fun and hands-on learning throughout this year. Cooking Class for Kids includes three individual five-week courses, each focusing on varied aspects of cuisine, such as appetizers, main dishes and desserts.

In the upcoming sessions participants will create their own photo recipe books and learn important and essential cooking skills, kitchen safety and food preparation basics as they make and taste their own recipes.

Classes are geared for children ages 5 through 11 years old, and will take place at Chabad of Chesterfield, 1639 Clarkson Road in the Trader Joe’s shopping strip off the corner of Clarkson and Baxter roads. Classes will be held on Tuesdays from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m. The first session will run from Nov. 17 through Dec. 15. The following sessions will be held Jan. 26 to Feb. 23 and April 13 to May 11.

Registration is $55 per five-week session plus $15 for a utensil kit — or $145 for all three sessions plus $15 for a utensil kit, which includes an apron, measuring cups and spoons, mixing bowls and many more essential cooking items.

For more information or to sign up visit www.chabadofchesterfield.com/cooking, call 636-778-4000 or email [email protected].


Monday, Nov. 2

Shalhevet to perform at the Cedars at the JCA

Shalhevet, a college student run and choreographed Israeli Dance Troupe of New York’s Columbia/Barnard College, will be performing for the residents and friends at The Cedars at the JCA at 10:30 a.m. Family and friends are welcome. The group of about 25 dancers will visit with the residents after their performance. Shalhevet works to choreograph new and exciting Israeli dances to contemporary Israeli and Middle Eastern music. For information, contact Matt Cohen at 314-754-2131.

Tuesday, Nov. 3

Forum on ‘Green Pathways out of Poverty’

“Green Pathways Out of Poverty: A Vision for the Future,” the first St. Louis area forum to address how low income communities can participate in the “green” movement, will be held at 7 p.m. at Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Avenue (at Kingshighway). The forum, sponsored by a coalition of groups representing the environmental and anti-poverty communities, is free and open to the public.

Scheduled speakers are Joe Thomas, Missouri Coordinator of the Apollo Alliance; Kyle Hunsberger, Director of Construction for Habitat for Humanity St. Louis; Annie Mayrose, Urban Agriculture Coordinator, Gateway Greening; Jackie Timm, Accountant/Internal Auditor with the Weatherization Program of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis; and Missouri State Representative Jeanette Mott Oxford. Liz Forrestal, Executive Director of Missouri Votes Conservation, will moderate the forum. The forum will include a call to action letting those attending know what they can do to help support more green housing and green jobs in low-income communities. Joining JCRC as sponsors of this event are Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of St. Louis; Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis; Missouri Association for Social Welfare; Missouri Coalition for the Environment; National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis Section; Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy; Sustainable St. Louis, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Inc. and Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice.For more information, contact Gail Wechsler at the JCRC, 314-442-3894 or 314-503-5814, [email protected].

Tuesday, Nov. 3 and 10

Crown Center offers ‘Torah Nuggets’

Crown Center will have a “Torah Nuggets” program at 1:30 p.m., which is open to the community. Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh will lead the discussions. Crown Center is located at 8350 Delcrest Drive.

Wednesday, Nov. 4

Discussion to Help Senior Adults Understand Medicare D Options

Are you having trouble navigating the options offered by Medicare? ElderLink St. Louis and United Hebrew Congregation will sponsor “Understanding Choices in Medicare D,” a free seminar for senior adults, their children and caregivers. The seminar, to be held at 2 p.m. at United Hebrew, 13788 Conway Road, will help participants determine which Medicare option is best suited for their individual needs.

Guest speaker at the event will be Shelley Miller, regional liaison for CLAIM, Missouri’s health insurance assistance program.

Reservations for the event are preferred, but not required. To make a reservation or for information, call Lori Zimmerman at 314-812-9300, or e-mail [email protected].

ElderLink St. Louis is a free, coordinated referral service for Jewish older adults, administered by Jewish Family & Children’s Service. For information, call 314-812-9300, or visit www.elderlinkstlouis.org.

NCJW holds Wife-Widow-Woman TeaThe National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis Section will hold a tea from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the NCJW office, 8350 Delcrest Drive, for prospective participants in the upcoming Wife-Widow-Woman grief support group. Recent widows who might be interested in joining the group will have an opportunity to meet others who have gone through the program and are willing to share their experiences.

To RSVP or for more information, call Nancy Weigley at 314-993-5181. The next 12-session Wife-Widow-Women group will begin in December.

Thursday, Nov. 5

TI offers monthly Rabbi’s Roundtable

From 12:30 to 2 p.m. the first Thursday of each month (except January and February), Rabbi Mark Shook leads a lively discussion of current events in TI’s board room. The conversation is open to topics the group proposes. The cost is $6 for TI members and $8 for non-members and includes lunch. A limited number of reservations are accepted.Call 314-432-8050 to RSVP by Oct. 30.

Friday, Nov. 6

NHBZ Kabballat Shabbat

Nusach Hari B’nai Zion Congregation welcomes the Jewish Community to special Kabbalat Shabbat services with lively prayer tunes, dance and joyous celebration by all participates led by special guest leader Aryeh Needle on select Friday nights continuing at 4:40 p.m Nov. 6 and at 4:20 p.m. Dec. 11. Make new acquaintances or join old friends as you partake in these spiritually uplifting Shabbat experiences. NHBZ is located at 8630 Olive Boulevard in University City. Call Rabbi Ze’ev Smason at 314-991-2100 for more information or visit our Web site at www.nhbz.org.

Sunday, Nov. 8

Shaare Emeth Young Adults at Bar Louie

Join the Shaare Emeth Young adults at 6:30 p.m. for dinner. Meet the group at Bar Louie, 110 S. Kirkwood Road. We’ll explore why Bar Louie is described as the “Concept of Tomorrow.” RSVP to [email protected]. If you would like to receive an evite for all events, please send a note to [email protected].

Tuesday, Nov. 10

Holocaust Museum Program Examines Lessons of Kristallnacht

“Small Decencies: A Lesson from Kristallnacht*” is the focus of a special evening commemorating the pogroms of Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, known as “the night of broken glass.” The program will be held at 7 p.m., the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive. It is free and open to the public.

Mimi Schwartz, Ph. D., author of “Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village,” will discuss her research into what life was like in the tiny Black Forest village of Rexingen, where, according to many residents’ memories, Christian and Jewish neighbors “all got along before Hitler.” Dr. Schwartz, professor emerita at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, received the 2008 ForeWord Book of the Year award in the Memoir category for her book. Her other writings have appeared in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Missouri Review, Jewish Week, Christian Science Monitor and numerous other publications.

The Holocaust Museum’s annual Kristallnacht program is supported by Kent and Deborah Hirschfelder, in memory of Kent’s great uncle Dr. Isidor Hirschfelder. Isidor was a prominent physician in Krefeld, Germany, and recipient of the German Iron Cross for service in World War I. He committed suicide in October, 1941, the night before he was to be deported to Auschwitz.

Kristallnacht, the government initiated pogrom which took place across Germany and Austria on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, marked a significant turning point in the tragic history of the Holocaust. Hundreds of synagogues, Jewish businesses and homes were destroyed and vandalized and sacred books and ritual objects were smashed and ruined. Thirty thousand Jewish men and boys were arrested and legislation intended to isolate and disenfranchise Jews dramatically increased after this date.

Light refreshments will be served. To RSVP or for additional information, call 314-442-3714.

The Holocaust Museum and Learning Center is a department of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Sunday, Nov. 15

Stir Up Some “Bone Button Borscht!” at Jewish Book Month Family Program

Families are invited to celebrate Jewish Book Month at 2 p.m. at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library by stirring up some “Bone Button Borscht!” Hear and participate in the magical Bone Button Borscht tale, based on the wonderful PJ Library book by Aubrey Davis, told by storyteller (and library director) Barb Raznick. The program will also include music, terrific craft projects and treats. Through the tale and projects, children will learn about feeding the hungry and becoming part of a caring community.

The program is co-sponsored by the PJ Library and the JCC Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Life. All children ages 3 through 9 and their parents and grandparents are invited. Reservations are required to [email protected] or 314-442-3720. There is no charge, but families are asked to bring non-perishable food items for the Jewish Food Pantry.