It was the late 1940s in St. Louis. A group of parents who were dissatisfied with the religious school education of their children got together to discuss the situation. They established the St. Louis School for Judaism. Over the years the school grew and expanded and in 1956 they organized and became Temple Emanuel. They were the first new Reform Jewish congregation in St. Louis in 70 years and this year they are celebrating their 50th anniversary.
“When the families got together in the 1950s the reform congregations in St. Louis were growing rapidly,” said Rabbi Joshua Taub. “Many families were disheartened and wanted smaller, more intimate congregations. There was also a desire to follow the principals and guidelines established by American Reform rabbis with the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.” The document defined classical reform ideology which called for Jews to abandon things like keeping kosher and felt Zionism was unnecessary since Jews were at home in America.
Today some of those views have softened and the congregation has welcomed more traditions.
“We have more Hebrew in our service,” said Rabbi Taub. “I wear a tallis. There has been a shift and I would describe it as moving closer to mainstream Reform. There is more interest in embracing the spiritual, more emphasis on music and a desire to get a more emotional/spiritual outcome of the worship experience.”
From the beginning Temple Emanuel was lay driven. Everyone volunteered and organized everything. In the first membership brochure published by the congregation they described themselves as a “do-it-yourself congregation.” Up until two years ago the religious school had an all in-house volunteer faculty. “Now we have paid teachers, a real curriculum and an education director,” said Norman Drey Jr., the son of founding members Mary and Norman Drey Sr.
Board president Ken Cohen has been a member for 18 years and remembered when he volunteered in the school going from classroom to classroom playing on his guitar and singing with the students. When he joined the synagogue board he had a recent confirmation student, take up his music provider role. “One day I told him what an unbelievable job he was doing,” Cohen said. “He told me, ‘You’re the reason I’m doing this. You used to come and play guitar in my classroom. You looked like you were having so much fun, I knew I wanted to do this.'”
The religious school will be heading up a project to commemorate the synagogue’s golden anniversary. “Students will be interviewing members of the congregation for our L’Dor V’Dor Project,” said director of education and programming Ellyn Polsky. “We will be filming and recording stories to create video interviews and scrapbooks to honor the 50th anniversary of the temple.”
One of the important qualities of the congregation from its inception is the way it welcomes mixed marriage families. “I was attracted to the synagogue because of the welcoming nature of the congregants and its comfortable atmosphere towards mixed marriages,” said Cohen. “Rabbi Joseph Rosenbloom was the first rabbi who would officiate at interfaith marriages,” said Rabbi Taub. “As a result many of those couples became members of the congregation because they felt welcome.”
Ray Dobinsky has been a member since the early 1960s. She remembers being at the groundbreaking ceremony for the building. “My son was in kindergarten at the time and got to dig the first shovel,” said Dobinsky. “It was really cute. My husband Paul was the president of the congregation and I was the president of the women’s club. We stayed at Temple Emanuel because of the wonderful friends we have there and friends we brought into the Temple. “
Four generations of Joanne Iskiwitch’s family have attended the synagogue. “We have celebrated all the life cycles here, ” said Iskiwitch. “I grew up at the synagogue, my husband and I were married there, there were the births of our daughters, baby namings, a bat mitzvah, a confirmation and unfortunately the funeral of my father. “
When Cohen looks to the future for the congregation he feels their biggest challenge is helping people identify the role of Judaism in their lives. “Like many congregations we have a core group who participates in synagogue life on a regular basis, ” Cohen said. “We want to know how the Temple can better serve more members of the congregation and increase that level of participation. “
“As a congregation we continue to remain flexible, ” said Drey Jr. “One of the newest things is planning and implementing social outreach as a congregation. While many of our individual members are active as volunteers and leaders in the community, we now have organized programs as a congregation. Our Care and Share program has really electrified the membership. We cook 100 meals a week for shut-ins. “
“We have a small, but not too small, intimate congregation, so you don’t get lost in the crowd, ” Iskiwitch said. “Rabbi Taub and Rabbi Rosenbloom are very nice, intelligent, warm human beings, knowledgeable and relate well to people. Our rabbi has time for us. It is nice to know your rabbi will be there for you. It is a nice personal touch. “