Scholarship aims to nurture Jewish life at UMSL

Millennium Student Center at UMSL

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason is proud to point out his synagogue’s proximity to a nearby public university.

“We may be the closest synagogue geographically to UMSL,” he said. “Just a couple of miles down the highway.”

But now Nusach Hari B’nai Zion may be just a little bit closer to the University of Missouri-St. Louis,  thanks to two generous congregants.

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Susan Feigenbaum and Dr. Jay Pepose have endowed a special scholarship fund for children and grandchildren of congregants at NHBZ. An initial gift of $10,000 will help fund educational fees for an UMSL attendee who wishes to go to the school full time.

“[NHBZ is] studying out the eligibility criteria, but I would suspect it will be merit-based and perhaps have an essay associated with it,” said Feigenbaum, who has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor   at UMSL since 1988.

It is not yet known whether the fund will go toward a single student or multiple enrollees.  The application process is still being determined by the synagogue board.

Rabbi Smason praised   Feigenbaum and Pepose, who are married, for their gift.

“It proves once again that both Dr. Feigenbaum and Dr. Pepose are people of vision,” he joked in a reference to the Pepose Vision Institute,  where Pepose, its founder, is an ophthalmologist and medical director. Yet he’s quick to note that the pun isn’t just a quip.

“Their efforts here are addressing a critical need, particularly in light of the recent demographic survey that was released, which shows a dramatic decline in engagement in the Jewish community,” he said. “The perspective that Drs. Susan and Jay have is that the main target audience we need to address in this critical drop in involvement and identity are those who are most susceptible, older teens and college-age students.”

Smason says the effort will help the community.

“Overwhelmingly, the students who graduate from UMSL stay in the St. Louis region,” he said. “An investment in Jewish identity at UMSL is an investment in Jewish students and an investment in St. Louis.”

Smason also alluded to what he termed a rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment on campuses nationwide that complicates Jewish identity.

“The benefits of instilling in them pride in being Jewish has ripple effects that extend over the course of decades for their future families and the decisions they make,” he said. “If just left on their own without Jewish engagement, we see very sadly the consequences of that.”

The scholarship isn’t the only example of the couple’s UMSL-related philanthropy. They also are donating  $100,000 to locate and buy a house for Jewish life next to the campus in north St. Louis County.

Feigenbaum said she hopes the gift will attract matching donations that might eventually fund not just the purchase but also the furnishings for such a structure, perhaps allowing for the installation of a kosher kitchen and even sleeping quarters.

“If we have somebody come in to give talks or to come for a week and be scholar-in-residence, or somebody comes for a weekend but doesn’t drive on Shabbat, we would have residential facilities for them,” she said.

Feigenbaum said she hopes to see various organizations use the building, including Chabad, Hillel, Alpha Epsilon Pi and UMSL’s Jewish Student Association.

“(We) would like to see growth in leadership among Jewish students,” she said. “We’ve had a couple of students each year who have become active leaders in our Jewish Student Association.”

Meanwhile, the pair also have given $50,000 to endow an annual lecture which would rotate between UMSL and Maryville University in conjunction with the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.

The event is named after Holocaust survivors Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Feigenbaum’s rabbi and his wife from Feigenbaum’s native Hartford, Conn. She said the first speaker could be lined up in six to nine months.

Feigenbaum said it is impossible to know how many Jews are in the student body at UMSL but that the number could be significant.

“We think that there is a great likelihood of at least 500 Jewish undergraduate and graduate students, which makes it the second-largest campus for Jewish students, the first being Wash. U.,” she said.

Feigenbaum said she feels there is a potential for more Jewish life at UMSL.

“There are a lot of Jewish families in St. Louis who, for a variety of reasons, would want their children to stay in town and go to UMSL,” she said. “It is a phenomenal value in terms of a good quality education. There is also the fact that a majority of students stay here. If you talk about impacting the St. Louis Jewish community, that’s the campus that’s going to impact it.”

Feigenbaum said that she and her husband, a native New Yorker, are both transplants to the area and want to do what they can to help a city that welcomed them so warmly 25 years ago.

“The community has been very good to us, and so we want some of our philanthropy to go back to the St. Louis community,” she said.