Temple Israel to mark 125th anniversary

Congregation Temple Israel

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi Amy Feder likes to laud Temple Israel’s ability to retain members – often over generations.

“Even though we are a congregation growing in terms of young families, which is very exciting, it’s pretty incredible that even those young families often are people who had parents here as confirmands, their grandparents, their great-grandparents,” said Feder, who notes she is fifth generation with the temple. “This is just a congregation that pulls people back to it, year after year so to be able to celebrate 125 years, we’re very proud of that.”

TI is indeed marking a century and a quarter since its birth as an offshoot of Congregation Shaare Emeth in 1886. The festivities began during the High Holidays with a Sukkot family festival and will continue this month with the Jan. 13 bestowal of the Malachi Award on the Rev. Earl Nance, Jr.

Nance, longtime pastor of the Greater Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, will be the 12th recipient of the 25-year-old honor, which is given out irregularly to recognize those who contribute to interfaith work in the area. The church’s choir is expected to sing at the temple at the interfaith Shabbat event.

“The things he has done for the city are absolutely incredible,” Feder said. “When our committee met to decide who the next recipient should be, everyone said ‘I can’t believe Rev. Nance hasn’t been given this award before.’ He is the perfect recipient.”

Unfortunately, the St. Louis American reported late last month that Nance suffered a heart attack and was being treated at an area hospital. Neither Nance, nor anyone at the church could be reached for comment.

Mark Shook, rabbi emeritus of TI, said the upcoming event to honor Nance is designed to coincide with the Jan. 16 observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The weekend was chosen because we wanted to highlight the long history of the temple in interfaith relations and also civil rights,” said Shook, who himself worked with Nance to create the organization that is now Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls.

Interestingly, the synagogue’s history includes a visit from King himself. The famed civil rights leader spoke at Temple Israel in 1963.

Shook said that although some 3,000 people attended the event, it was sparsely covered with little mention in the local papers. No photos of the talk have even been located.

Joseph Losos, 80, is one who was there for King’s appearance. He recalled the huge crowd that turned out.

“I remember the keynote of his speech was on the concept of agape, which is particularly strongly associated with the Christian notion of charity,” he said.

King isn’t the only big name to have graced the congregation during its colorful history. Other names that come to mind include Henry Kissinger, Abba Eban and Simon Wiesenthal.

Even some of the cancellations have been notable. Shook said that in the late 1970s, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was scheduled to give a talk but was called away at the last minute due to peace overtures from Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. Eventually, the two nations would forge the treaty still in existence to this day.

Losos, a lifelong member of the temple, also recalls an event at TI related to peace.

“In terms of the most moving and important one for me, it was the celebration of the end of the war against Nazi Germany,” he said. “I can’t remember all the details but it was a lovely spring day and there was a great enthusiasm as you might well imagine.”

Most of the 125th anniversary observances set for this year were created to reflect the values of the temple. In April, TI will honor multi-generational families and past presidents while May will host a “mega mitzvah” day that will run the gamut from clothing collections to a blood drive, said Carol Wolf Solomon, director of development and communications.

“Tikkun olam work is a very integral part of who we are as a congregation,” she said. “The notion is to have something for everybody from the youngest children to our longest-tenured members. We’re hoping to involve the entire St. Louis Jewish community in that project.”

Events will wrap up with a culminating gala in November.

This month’s theme of interreligious cooperation has had a particularly strong influence in the temple’s history.

“The congregation has a very long history of interfaith work dating back to the earliest days in the 1880s and 1890s,” said Solomon. “It’s always been a big part of who we are.”

It was a tradition carried on from rabbi to rabbi, including longtime Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, who built many bridges to various aspects of the local religious community.

His grandson, Rick Isserman, said those efforts came in handy when TI had to file suit fight local officials who attempted to prevent the institution from building in its present location.

“All these contacts he’d made inside the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church paid off,” Isserman said. “Those were the people that sided with him and wrote briefs to the court.”

Isserman, himself active in area interfaith dialogue groups, said that kind of anti-Semitism was much more common in his grandfather’s day than it is now. He said the rabbi often hosted a radio show that spoke out against German atrocities in the run up to WWII.

“He came out against Father Charles Coughlin, too,” said Isserman, referring to the famously anti-Jewish radio priest. “You just don’t get the feeling today of what it was in the 1930s, the anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler attitude.”

Isserman, now a member at Central Reform Congregation where Susan Talve serves as rabbi, said TI can be proud of both its history and its present. He said his grandfather would be happy to see the community’s spiritual strength.

“His legacy continues on with rabbis today,” he said. “Susan Talve and Amy Feder are certainly good examples of the kind of leadership we had in the Jewish community back then. It’s remarkable that these two rabbis are out there doing exactly the same type of work that he did in the ‘30s.”

Feder said that, in a larger sense, TI’s anniversary isn’t solely for members.

“It’s not just for the people who belong here,” she said. “It’s really for the entire community, all of our congregations that have been a part of St. Louis for so long. We’re a part of what makes St. Louis the vibrant place that it is. To be able to share our celebration with everyone is really important to us.”