St. Louis Jewish history tour kicks off new program for seniors

Shaare Emeth Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Stiffman speaks to participants of Seniors on the Move during a tour of the former Shaare Emeth building in University City. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

The Biddle Street neighborhood once bustled with Jewish merchants hawking everything from pickles and knishes to dry goods and shoes.

Roxanne Weisman’s grandparents used to live in that colorful old Jewish neighborhood.

Later, her family became part of the westward migration of St. Louis Jews, and Weisman grew up during the 1940s around Easton Avenue.

“I can remember from my childhood traveling on the streetcars with my grandma to go downtown to buy fresh fish to make gefilte fish,” she says with fond remembrance.

Weisman, 77, was among St. Louis Jewish seniors who enjoyed a sentimental journey around the city April 14. A history tour of St. Louis Jewish landmarks was the first event of a program called Seniors on the Move. It drew an enthusiastic and much larger-than-expected crowd.

“We hoped we could fill one bus, but we had three buses and 141 people,” said Emily Cohen, program specialist at Congregation Shaare Emeth.

Seniors on the Move was organized by Shaare Emeth, Congregation Temple Israel and United Hebrew Congregation. Its events are open to anyone in the community.

Those on the tour learned some gems of local Jewish history, such as: St. Louis’ earliest minyan met above a Jewish-owned store in the area that’s now the Gateway Arch; the first synagogue, in 1837, was near what today is  home plate at Busch Stadium; and Louis Brandeis, the first Jew on the U.S. Supreme Court, practiced law in downtown St. Louis for a year.

Seniors on the tour eagerly swapped stories as they recalled old Jewish neighborhoods, shuls, rabbis, delis and movie theaters such as the Will Rogers on Union Boulevard and the Varsity in the Loop.

“I’m seeing some people today I haven’t seen since Soldan High School,” Weisman said.

Her husband, Gene Weisman, recalled his bar mitzvah at the old Kneseth Israel in Clayton. Kneseth Israel later merged with Brith Sholom.

Rachael Pevnick, 83, of Creve Coeur, remembered happy times as a child in the 1930s attending B’nai Zion when it was a small Orthodox shul on South Broadway.

“We’d all walk there, and they always had plums for the kids,” Pevnick said. “It was a thriving area with all kinds of dry goods stores and drugstores. The whole block was Jewish merchants.”

The day began with a welcome to Temple Israel by Rabbi Amy Feder. The crowd then took off in three tour buses with expert tour guides: Shaare Emeth Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Stiffman, United Hebrew Rabbi Emeritus Howard Kaplansky and Joe Losos, longtime Jewish community leader and member of Temple Israel.

Starting in the oldest Jewish areas near the riverfront, the tour wound its way west for two hours, with a stop in University City for lunch at Jilly’s at the old Shaare Emeth building near Trinity Avenue and Delmar Boulevard, now Washington University’s 560 Music Center.

Highlights of the afternoon included talks by Stiffman and Kaplansky at the old Shaare Emeth and the old United Hebrew, 225 S. Skinker Blvd.


From Second Street to the burbs

At one of the first stops, on Second Street on Laclede’s Landing, is an ornate commercial building constructed by Jewish businessmen Marcus Bernheimer and Nicholas Scharff in 1884. The cornerstone has the Jewish year on it: 5644.

Bernheimer was president of the city’s Merchants Exchange in 1891. He was the first president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of St. Louis and Associated Hebrew Charities, and president of National Jewish Charities. He also developed the Meramec Highlands summer resort on the Meramec River.

Next, the tour passed by Aloe Plaza, which includes the fountain sculpture by Carl Milles outside Union Station called the Meeting of the Waters. The plaza is named for Louis P. Aloe, a member of Shaare Emeth who was president of the A.S. Aloe Co. and active in city political life. He was president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen from 1916 to 1923 and has been credited with progressive policies including the eight-hour workday in St. Louis.

In Forest Park, the tour included the 1925 Nathan Frank Bandstand by the Muny Opera. Frank donated money for the bandstand after the park’s music pagoda burned down.

A child of Jewish-German immigrants, he was a leader of the general St. Louis community – a congressman in 1888-1890 and one of seven commissioners of the 1904 World’s Fair. He sat in the President’s Box at Sportsman’s Park when William Howard Taft established a baseball tradition and threw out the first pitch of the season. Frank founded the city’s Star newspaper.

Another stop: the 1956 Tercentenary Monument near Kingshighway and West Pine Boulevard in Forest Park. Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, who was a well-known and long-time Temple Israel rabbi, had led the effort to acquire the monument, which celebrates 300 years of Jewish settlement in the New World. A stone cast in the shape of an ocean wave features Bible verses and a replica of the ship that carried the first Jews to New Amsterdam from Brazil in 1654.

Sarijane Freiman, a Temple Israel member on the tour, was touched that the city park had a monument celebrating Jews.

“When I was growing up, you saw signs saying, ‘No dogs. No Jews. No (blacks),” Freiman said. “When I find a positive marker for Jewish presence, it gives me such a feeling of peace and joy.”

Another popular stop was the old Soldan High School on Union Boulevard, which used to be close by the YMHA-YWHA, a center for Jewish family life. The high school for years was predominantly Jewish.

On the Jewish High Holy days, Weisman said, “there were only two or three students in some of the classes at Emerson Elementary School.”

Not too far away, Belt Avenue had so many rabbis there seemed to be a shul on almost every corner. It also had a Hebrew school and council house.

At Holy Corners — Kingshighway and Washington Avenue — the former Temple Israel building still stands. The grand Roman-style temple with Corinthian columns was used by the congregation from 1907 until 1962.

As they rode by, Marvin and Evelyn Bernstein said their wedding was the last one at that Temple Israel location. Rita Freed said that she attended the last Yom Kippur service there and that her mother-in-law was confirmed there in 1917.


The old temples revisited

At the old Shaare Emeth building in University City, Stiffman said, “You can hardly afford to build a building like this now.”

He pointed to the sanctuary’s artistic and structural details, including the very tall, narrow windows with a Tree of Life design.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, Stiffman recalled, “sun would filter through them, and a very soft, gentle light would cover the congregation.” 

He described the grand opening of the first Shaare Emeth building in 1869 at 17th and Pine streets. The event drew the mayor, police chief and governor as well as Christian clergy.

Kaplansky welcomed the tour groups to the old United Hebrew building on Skinker, now the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center. The restoration is “really magnificent, and we’re grateful our former building is put to such good use,” he said.

The rabbi said that when United Hebrew was preparing to leave Skinker Boulevard for its current Chesterfield location, he had uncovered some meeting minutes from 1927 of a temple board debate about whether to move to Skinker. Some of the arguments were the same.

Those objecting to the move said “it’s too far west, no one will go that far,” Kaplansky said with a big smile.

For tradition, United Hebrew took with it to Chesterfield sections of the stained glass windows from Skinker that had “served as a backdrop for many people’s bar mitzvah and wedding albums,” he said.

Janice Sherman of Shaare Emeth remarked on the renovations of both the old Shaare Emeth and United Hebrew.

“It’s such a good feeling to know that the organizations who bought these buildings repurposed them so beautifully,” she said.

The final stop paid respects at Ohave Sholom Cemetery, 7410 Olive Blvd., to Jewish refugees who had escaped from Nazi Germany and are buried there.

A 4-foot-by-6-foot red granite stone with an urn on both sides and three small curved benches stands as a Holocaust Memorial. The 1949 marker reads:“This commemorates the supreme sacrifice through martyrdom of our dear ones who gave up their lives as victims of Nazi barbarism 1933-1945.”

The Seniors on the Move program is subsidized by the Nathan Kahn-Ernestine Kahn-Charles Kahn Foundation of Congregation Temple Israel.In addition to Emily Cohen and Debbie Bram of Shaare Emeth, Cori Neidenberg of United Hebrew, Rachel Closson of Temple Israel and the rabbis helped plan the day. Bram, director of Jewish Life and Learning at Shaare Emeth, is the widow of the late Rabbi Eric Bram of Temple Israel.

In keeping with the historical theme, guests at lunch were greeted by Ada Vredenburgh, great-granddaughter of the late Rabbi Alvan Rubin and the late Ruth Ann Rubin of Temple Israel.