Rabbi works at community-building


A new era began in August for Young Israel synagogue with the arrival of their newest leader, Rabbi Moshe Shulman. The congregation’s longtime Rabbi, Jeffrey Bienenfeld, left last year to make aliyah to Israel.

The congregation formally installed Shulman at their annual dinner Jan. 27.


Shulman was looking for a change of pace when he decided to move from his pulpit in Toronto to St. Louis. After 10 years of leading a large congregation of 1,000 families, Shulman felt like he needed to explore other communities. When St. Louis came on the radar, he felt like our city was a nice fit.

“St. Louis is a small to mid-sized city, which I like,” said Shulman. “The city has the institutions that make up a vibrant Jewish community. Here, I have a chance to help the community grow. It’s also a good place to raise our kids,” he said, smiling. With his six children spanning the ages of 2 to 20 years old, the St. Louis community proves a perfect place to rear a family for he and his wife, Baila.

Community-building is key for Shulman, who believes that a shul needs to have a very strong communal presence. “One of the things that attracted me to Young Israel was their presence in the community. A very high percentage of Young Israel’s members are lay leaders in other institutions in the city,” he said.

Shulman firmly believes that shuls should not live in isolation from the community as a whole, but should see themselves as part of the wider Jewish community.

“That sense of belonging to and being part of the wider community is a vitally important part of a shul,” he said. This congregation certainly carries that philosophy, while at the same time maintains and adheres to the principals of Orthodoxy and Jewish life.”

With that idea in mind, Shulman fully supported Young Israel’s hugely successful St. Louis Jewish Community Blood Drive, organized by members, Bob and Judy Hellman. With over 100 people attempting to donate, they collected 76 units of blood, enough to save 228 lives.

This type of outreach speaks to that connection between the shul and the community, said Shulman.

“The Blood Drive united not only the Jewish community, but the entire region as well,” said Judy Hellman.

In addition, Shulman hopes to grow the community within the walls of the shul.

“The shul is very dynamic and vibrant,” he explains, “with a lot of intellectual depth, commitment, and involvement. I would like to harness that energy and take it to the next generation by trying to unite the various views within the synagogue.”

Shulman describes the synagogue as an eclectic group with a wide variety of outlooks.

“That’s part of its health, part of its dynamic, that it doesn’t have only one type of observance level and one type of philosophy,” he said. It spans a very wide and comfortable spectrum — all within the rubric of the Orthodox community. Part of my goal in-house is to create a sense of vision and purpose in working together,” he said.

Shulman talks of adding more song to the synagogue service so to elevate the spiritual component of the service itself. He envisions enhancing the spirit of the prayers, creating camaraderie, and initiating an increased family feeling within the synagogue. Additionally, he imagines outreach, chesed, community-building activities like picnics and social events to further generate a sense of unity.

Shulman also intends to open the doors of Orthodoxy to individuals who would otherwise be uncomfortable. By developing an outreach arm from the shul, he wants to create an avenue that allows people to explore Orthodoxy in a non-judgmental, open atmosphere. His goal is make Young Israel an inviting place in which to worship and to offer opportunities to explore Jewish life and the intellectual depths that Judaism provides.

“An overall challenge in the Jewish world today is the perception that Orthodox Judaism is a closed network, very isolated, very insular,” said Shulman. “But that’s certainly not my philosophy.”

“Part of the challenge is to break down that stereotype. A new rabbi faces the challenge of new ideas; any change is a four letter word in an institution that has a history. It’s certainly true with an Orthodox synagogue because of the ingrained notion of the importance of tradition,” explained Shulman. “It’s part of what Orthodoxy is built around, the notion of tradition and antiquity. So to balance the integrity of the tradition and the antiquity of the customs with a freshness, a new direction, and a new emphasis — that’s a challenge. Shulman smiled and stroked his beard. “But overall it’s been a very positive experience.”

In fact, Young Israel has embraced the new Rabbi with enthusiasm.

“Everyone, I think, felt it was a godsend that Rabbi Shulman came to us,” said Mordechai Simon, a member for over 20 years. “He has a tremendous bandwidth of tolerance for Jews of all commitment levels,” he said.

“Besides being very learned, he’s someone that you can approach on any issue,” said Bob Hellman, a 30-year member. “He’s very aware of the needs of our congregation. He’ll do anything to help a congregant if there’s a problem,” said Hellman.

“He’s spawned a really good energy level. People are excited about what’s happening,” said Simon.