Shaare Emeth is focus of siblings’ journey back to each other


Pictured from left are Rabbi Stephen Stein; Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman and Lara Rachlin Steinel.

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman

Sometimes, real life is more amazing and inspiring than fiction. This true story is about a girl and boy from different families who attended religious school at Shaare Emeth in the early 1970s. They probably saw each other, although she was six years older.

About five decades later, they learned that they were brother and sister. I have the privilege of sharing their joy and telling their story.

The brother

My first involvement in this story was preparing a student for his bar mitzvah in 1972. Stephen Stein was the son of German-Jewish immigrants. He loved coming to synagogue, especially listening to the music of Cantor Edward Fogel, organist Edward Wallace and the choir.

Music became his passion, specifically nurtured by his uncle John Stein. He was told that his grandmother, Lore Stein, was a noted pianist in Germany before the World War II. Much to his chagrin, Stephen’s family left the congregation soon after he became a bar mitzvah. He remembered learning from his Shaare Emeth teachers, including a favorite named Beulah Rachlin. We lost contact for many years.

Stephen went on to study music and become a symphony conductor; his final conducting job was in Houston. His love of Judaism became more intense when he was in his 30s. Sitting in a bible study class in a Houston synagogue, he met Charlene and Norman Meltzer, active members of Shaare Emeth visiting from St. Louis. He asked whether they knew of Shaare Emeth, Fogel or Stiffman.

The Meltzers put us in touch with each other almost immediately. Stephen and I renewed our friendship and formed a new bond. Stephen enrolled in the Hebrew Union College to become a rabbi.

While he was a student, he preached an impressive sermon at Shaare Emeth. Stephen was ordained in 2003 and went on to serve congregations in Terre Haute, Los Angeles, Chicago and Central Florida before retiring. He and his husband Steven live in Orlando, Fla., where Steven was on the faculty of the School of Performing Arts at the University of Central Florida.

Stephen Julius Stein had always wished for a sibling. His desire was soon to come true.

The sister

In the 1970s, my wife, Arlene, and I were friends with Max and Beulah Rachlin, active temple members. Yes, she was the superb teacher in our religious school whom Stephen remembered.

Max was a well-known ophthalmologist. He and Beulah adopted a baby daughter from the Children’s Home Society of Missouri, learning only that she had been named Laurel. The Rachlins shortened her name to Lara, and she thrived as their daughter. She knew nothing of her birth parents but was told that she was named after a grandmother.

I knew her as a wonderful and enthusiastic student. Lara especially remembers her religious school class taught by the Bob Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Jewish Light.

She was musically talented, and I asked her to accompany the religious school services on the organ, which she did with grace. She was a serious student, full of life.

I officiated at her wedding in 1973 to Dan Steinel. Her mother died too young, and her father moved out-of-town to be with family. We lost contact for many years.

After her father’s death, she found her adoption papers with the names of her birth parents. She made many attempts to find them but was unsuccessful. (They both died young.)

She and her husband Dan moved to various cities. She worked many years for USA Today and then The Washington Post and he was an engineer with Sprint. In recent years, after moving back to the Kansas City area, she became director of music and cantorial soloist at Congregation Kol Ami. In addition, she sang in several choirs and was well known in musical circles.

One day, she related her story to a friend who was very skilled in restoration research and had access to software that allowed her to search microfilm and microfiche. There she found the death notices for both birth parents, along with the information that they were survived by a son, Stephen Julius Stein, and an uncle John Stein.

After two weeks of searching, Lara found the names Stephen Julius Stein and Steven Chicurel posted on a wedding site. On Feb. 5, 2018, Lara wrote a cautious note to Steven Chicurel Stein stating that she thought she was a relative of his husband. She offered him the opportunity to tear it up if he felt it would upset Stephen Julius.

Steven Chicurel gave the note to Stephen Julius who immediately burst out in joy. It might be possible that he indeed had a sister.

The reunions

Lara wrote:

“Just nine days later, on Valentine’s Day, I heard from my brother, who told me that no one in the family had ever mentioned a sibling given up for adoption. I sent him the court paperwork so he could see that the people named in it had identical names to his parents and that they had named me ‘Laurel.’ I told him what the Children’s Home Society of Missouri told my folks: that my natural parents had married out of high school, were not prepared to care for a baby and that I had been named ‘Laurel’ in honor of someone in the family who was a pianist of note.”

Stephen said that it all added up: “(She) was named for our grandmother, Lore, who had a career as a pianist in Germany before she, our grandfather, father and uncle left in 1938 to escape the Nazis.”

Stephen’s response was: “We are siblings!”

Lara and Dan flew to meet Stephen and Steven in Orlando. She shared her story with her rabbi in Kansas City, who invited her newly found rabbi brother to preach one of the High Holy Day sermons at her temple.

The siblings’ spouses were very supportive and suggested that brother and sister take some time to be together and learn about each other. A few months later, brother and sister traveled to Santa Fe to enjoy the famous opera company there. During that trip they shared their love of music, their family stories and their special joy. They have found many similar personal likes and dislikes and share a similar philosophy of music.

Lara even met her Uncle John Stein before his death at an advanced age.

The ark and Powell Hall

Lara and Stephen had very special memories of the doors of the ark on the bimah at Shaare Emeth, which are now found in our chapel. On Nov. 3, we stood together in front of those doors reminiscing and praying. I had tears in my eyes as I offered a blessing for their reunion in the congregation they still love. 

All of this history came together on the evening of Nov. 6 in Powell Symphony Hall. On the screen above the proscenium, a slide appeared announcing that the St. Louis Symphony concert was being sponsored by Stephen Julius Stein and Lara Steinel in memory of their Uncle John Stein, a devoted patron of the symphony.

I was very moved as I thought of our years together, first as rabbi and students, now as dear friends. I was touched by the love brother and sister expressed for each other, the unity of their spouses and the love of music that tied them together.

I felt so grateful for being part of this story, one of the greatest rewards of my rabbinate. As we parted at the end of the concert, they both said:

“We will be back often. We’ve been away too long.”

May that come to be.

Jeffrey Stiffman is Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Shaare Emeth.