St. Louis congregation Neve Shalom quietly closes after 33 years


In a January 2009 file photo, Rabbi Jim Goodman (right) and Keith Rashke take part in a prayer vigil at Congregation Neve Shalom during the Israel-Hamas conflict.

By Bill Motchan , Special to the Jewish Light

The St. Louis area recently lost a 33-year-old congregation. Neve Shalom, a Jewish Renewal community, quietly disbanded after the High Holidays. Dwindling membership was the primary reason Neve Shalom made the difficult decision to cease operation, according to Tom Wilde, board president.

“In the last days, we had about 40 families,” Wilde said. By contrast, at its peak Neve Shalom had a membership of nearly 200 families.

“We had a pretty good size and we had a very good turnout on Friday nights,” Wilde added. “When I joined 25 years ago, Friday night was a big event.”

Neve Shalom Board President Tom Wilde

A major draw for Friday night services was Rabbi James Goodman, the congregation’s founder, who is married to Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation. Goodman spent 29 years at Neve Shalom and stepped away in 2018. Now affiliated with CRC, Goodman is a noted musician and storyteller. His skills made Neve Shalom Shabbat services popular events.

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Prior to Goodman’s departure, he was often joined by Will Soll, another talented musician and Torah scholar. Having spiritual leaders like Goodman and Soll was a blessing, Wilde said. He compared them to another local MVP-caliber duo.

“We had Goldschmidt and Arenado,” Wilde said, referring to the Cardinals’ top players.

Taking care Of each other

The Neve Shalom community also had talented cooks among its members, according to Ellen Lawrence, a longtime board member. 

“We have great bakers,” said Lawrence, who learned to make challah at Neve. “I even taught challah baking classes at some of our events. We had amazing bakers and cooks in that organization. I mean, really incredible.”

Lawrence also taught religious school for a number of years and helped organize events. The intimate nature of a small congregation was a plus for her.

“It was really focused on learning and spirituality and tikkun olam,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times a lot of people made dinners for people who were ill or dying. We took care of each other and that’s what I really loved about it. I loved the sense of spirituality.”

Lawrence also re-learned Hebrew at Neve Shalom.

“I even got bat mitzvahed with my oldest daughter. She did the Torah, I did the Haftorah.”

For members, it was easy to get involved in activities, according to Wilde: “All you had to do is show up and we would get you involved to your level of interest.”

A nomadic journey

One of the challenges Neve Shalom faced for years was the lack of a permanent physical location. In the early days, it shared a space with a church on Conway Road. That was not ideal, in part because a number of members were uncomfortable with the Christian imagery in the sanctuary.

From there, Neve Shalom moved to Rainbow Village, the Creve Coeur-area community for adults with developmental disabilities. Eventually, Neve Shalom was asked by Covenant Place to move into a space at the former CHAI building. When that location began renovation efforts, another move was planned, back to Rainbow Village. Then COVID hit and the congregation moved online.

Converting to Zoom services for Saturday morning Torah study initially proved successful for Neve Shalom. It was convenient and safe for participants. In 2022, as the rest of the world moved back to post-COVID in-person gatherings, Neve Shalom found its small congregation becoming smaller. That’s when the board voted unanimously to close permanently.

Saying goodbye

Even members who saw the handwriting on the wall were dismayed by the closure announcement.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Ellen Lawrence. “It’s been part of my life for so long. It’s really important to give back to the community and we did something that I don’t know of any other synagogue in the area had done. We had a policy that if you couldn’t afford to host a bar or bat mitzvah for your child—if you had fallen hard times—the hospitality members would provide it anonymously.”

The Neve Shalom board decided to go out on a festive note, and made its first post-COVID event an in-person celebration for erev Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the Dielmann Recreation Complex.

“After years of COVID and being displaced, that was very bittersweet,” Wilde said. “It was so nice to be back in person and having a Neve service, knowing that it’s really the end. We had some lovely tributes that were given by various members of the congregation, and some faces that we hadn’t seen for a while were in attendance. So I have to say that made it a sweet memory. The memory is really sweet more than sad.

“All of us are still in the community,” he said. “And we have our roots at Neve Shalom, but we are using that to continue our giving to the Jewish community.”