St. Louis ‘mishpacha’ group has been connecting participants for 40 years

Members of the mishpacha group celebrate Hanukkah in 2015.

BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the Jewish Light

In December, a St. Louis mishpacha (family) group created by the Jewish Community Center celebrated its 40-year anniversary. The 15-family group includes two original members. Through four decades, they’ve celebrated simchas and mourned losses together. The group has been meeting virtually because of COVID, but they’re planning in-person gatherings this year that will include travel, games and, of course, food. The group’s members offered a glimpse into what makes their bond special. What follows is an oral history of the group from its members. 

The origins of the mishpacha group

Ken Schwartz (former member of the J Family and Group Services Department): We had the idea of forming mishpacha groups that were similar to the congregation’s chavurot groups. We put an article in the “J. Journal” and said we were looking for people who were out-of-towners.

Sharon Weissman: A lot of us had no other family here. Hence the name “mishpacha,” so we adopted the practice of meeting for several holidays every year. Usually there was a Hanukkah party, almost always a seder, and a break fast, and one year we did a Tu B’shvat seder.

Marilyn Brown: Marilen Pitler and Carla and Jerry Rosen are the only two original members still here. I was the next one to join.

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Carla Rosen: I know exactly how old the group is. This little young man (pointing to her grandson) — his father, Mike Rosen, was born in August 1981, and the group first met on Hanukkah that year. I happen to remember because he was my baby. So that was a memorable occasion.

Marilen Pitler: When we first formed, I said there’s only one way for us to become cohesive and that’s for us to think of each other as cousins. We’re all related. It’s like the old-fashioned family club dinners. We started inviting everyone to the brises, the b’nai mitzvot, weddings — we were there to celebrate those occasions. And when the kids all grew up, one of the members said, “Now what?” and I said, “Well, we’ll switch to adult activities.”

Sharon Weissman: There were two other mishpacha groups, and they fell by the wayside. I think we are the only one that still is functioning.

Marilen Pitler: Members have moved away and have passed away, and we’ve accepted new members, and our family keeps growing.

Carla Rosen: I think that was the loneliest time when people were away from their families during the holidays, so that was important. We had individuals like Marilen Pitler, who were really good at keeping things organized.

Marilen Pitler: The Rosens belong to [United Hebrew] as I do. All three of us are from Chicago. I’m about 10 years older than Carla. We went to the first planning meeting at the J for this group and met Carla and Jerry. They asked, What congregation are you from? Carla said Beth Emet and I said Beth Emet. The same rabbi performed both of our marriage ceremonies 10 years apart, and here we are together as a family.

Carolyn Schechter: Marilyn Brown, Judy Barnett and I met in college, and we’ve remained friends since then. So we knew each other before being in this group. 

Marilen Pitler: Gerry Moskowitz is our banker. He lets us know when we need to add money for get well gifts, shiva platters. We just do what we need to do as a family unit.

Gerry Moskowitz: I have no financial background whatsoever, let me disclose that. I don’t take fees, I just dish it out.

How the group helped with members’ health problems

Marilen Pitler: I remember when Marian Shapiro was in rehab, we formed a calendar and one of us would visit her at the rehab facility.

Carla Rosen: Unfortunately, we lost our son years ago, and many of the people in the group were there for us at a very hard time.

Marilen Pitler: Judy and Malcolm Barnett host the break fast. We’ve had seders at Hannah Locks’ house and that was good because there was a time when Hertzl (Locks) couldn’t travel to other people’s homes. 

Hannah Locks: For us coming from out of town, it was just having a substitute family. That was a big deal for us. It really has functioned like a family, and for Marilen when Jordy Pitler was sick and later when my husband, Hertzl, got sick and there were a lot of places he couldn’t go. Some of the members took him to the Muny Opera, which wasn’t an easy thing to do, and those of us who didn’t like the opera were very relieved.

Marilen Pitler: The support that this group has given me since Jordy passed away — everyone will call me and they’re going to dinner later or the symphony or the theatre and say, “Join us,” so it’s been a great boost to be a part of everyone’s lives.

Celebrating simchas

Marilen Pitler: I think one of the earliest simchas was when we were at Carla and Jerry’s house for their son’s bris.

Sharon Weissman: We had Hanukkah at our house, and they’d fry latkes and the oil got all over the walls, but nobody cared. We’d all bring our menorahs, and they’d all be lit up. It was fun for adults, but especially for the kids.

Marilen Pitler: Marilyn Brown originally joined the group with her son Jonathan, and she had been divorced. All of a sudden, we noticed this new guy, Steve, showing up [with Marilyn] and we knew something was up, and then they got married.

Marilyn Brown: By that point we’d been seeing each other for a while, so we figured that Steve should meet the “family.” We’ve been married now for 37 years.

The road trips

Marilyn Brown: We used to go away every year to the state parks, and that’s when our children were younger, and that was always a lot of fun.

Sharon Weissman: I remember when we went to Washington State Park, and my husband, Allen, is a Chinese cook, and he brought his wok along, and he and Jordy Pitler and some others were helping him cook Chinese food.

Marilen Pitler: One of the things our kids would do on the last days we visited the state parks is form a pyramid. One on top of another. And it became the pyramid tradition.

Marian Shapiro: I’ve been in two other groups from the J, and they fell apart. This group is different. It goes to plays or museums or trips, like to New Harmony, Ind.

Carla Rosen: One year, a number of us went to Ste. Genevieve in the summer. It was so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk. There were no big hotels, so we stayed at a few bed and breakfasts and some people lost the draw and stayed at a place without air conditioning.

What the group means to members

Bob Germain: We moved here about six years ago, and Sharon and Alan Weissman are neighbors. We met Marilen and Marilyn and Judy and Carolyn through the Jewish Book Festival, which we’ve volunteered at since we moved here. So it’s been great. When you move to a new state, it usually takes about two years before you feel at home, and it took us a lot less time thanks to this group.

Bruce Glatter: Since we were fairly new to St. Louis, we didn’t have friendships, and relationships have always been very important to both of us. What I like is that it’s brought us a lot of friends, and that’s what really made us feel like we were home. I lived in Columbus for 40 years and, after we became a part of this group and working with them on the Jewish Film Festival, I thought, “Yep, I’m home again,” and that was a very nice feeling.

Marilyn Brown: Unlike normal families, there really have never been any controversies, which is kind of amazing. Everybody just gets along.

Sophia Kent: I was born in Poland after my parents came back to the unclaimed territory that always went back and forth between Poland and Germany and whoever wins the war gets that territory. I was always looking for like-minded people. This is my Jewish connection — the group is my connection to the past and my parents.

Ken Schwartz: They became friends, and they’ve been there for each other in happy times and sad times. They’re truly family for each other.