Ten families form new congregation in St. Charles

David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

With the passing of the High Holidays, the St. Louis area has marked not only the birth of a new year but also of a new synagogue.

Ahavat Shalom (Love of Peace) was incorporated in August with 10 families, becoming the second Judaic house of worship in St. Charles County. According to president Paul Dorn, the congregation will meet once a month for services and rent space from the St. Peters Community & Arts Center until the end of the year after which a more permanent space will be sought.


The synagogue’s newsletter outlines a three-part mission encompassing the encouragement of participation in Jewish worship and activities, the provision of high-quality Jewish education and the facilitation of tikkun olam. Services will be congregant-led.

“We all have a sense of the importance of community, of feeling a part of an intimate group,” Dorn said. “Whatever happens I would like it to stay feeling intimate. One of our goals is to keep it that way.”

Ahavat Shalom’s founding was the result of a split from Congregation B’nai Torah, a nearby 26-year-old Reform temple now consisting of 31 families. The new institution’s six-member board is made up of individuals previously on the board of B’nai Torah.

In an e-mailed statement from Dorn approved by the new synagogue’s board, the fledgling congregation said that the departure from B’nai Torah was a necessary one.

“In life, we learn that the greatest opportunity for pain comes from the closest of relationships,” it said. “Despite hard work to save it, the relationship between the founding members of Ahavat Shalom and the rest of the Board of Trustees could not be salvaged.”

The statement said the help of a counselor was sought but it became clear that a compromise was not possible.

“Like in a marriage, when this happens, it is important for all parties that a separation occur to prevent further injuries,” the statement said. “Ahavat Shalom was formed in a spirit of optimism and hope for the Jewish Community in St. Charles. I look forward to Ahavat Shalom and B’nai Torah working together for the benefit of the entire Jewish Community.”

Jack Cohen, president of B’nai Torah, said that he had heard about the idea being raised since early last spring but the move still took him a little by surprise because he had thought the issues were solvable.

“It’s hard to say what the differences were because the people who left I had picked to be the next leaders of B’nai Torah,” he said.

Still, he wished the group success and said that he looked forward to helping them to build up Jewish community life and unity in the St. Charles area. He said he had already communicated with the new organization that help was always available for everything from the loan of textbooks to space for a lifecycle event.

“My new board feels the same way I do,” Cohen said. “We’re all Jews.”

All six vacated spots on B’nai Torah’s nine-member board have been filled, Cohen said, noting that his temple’s active slate of future programming would remain unaffected.

Dorn said the concept for the new organization arose initially as a Sunday school. Eventually, the idea to form an entire synagogue emerged.

“As part of that we decided it met our goals better to have a full-service entity as opposed to having it just focused on the school,” he said. “The goal is facilitating being Jewish in St. Charles County.”

Shelby Cooke, the director of education, formerly held the same position at B’nai Torah. She said 17 students are enrolled at Ahavat Shalom.

“We’re not competing, just offering even more availability,” she said, noting that the new synagogue will offer Saturday morning worship while B’nai Torah’s monthly offering is on Friday night.

B’nai Torah will also continue to have an active Sunday school in which it has combined its adult education program with its confirmation class, Cohen said.

Cooke, 40, who also maintains a membership at Shaare Zedek Synagogue in University City, said that Ahavat Shalom would try to offer a variety of programs outside of regular services. She felt that meetings in the homes of congregants would help keep the organization energized and allow it to expand despite the challenges of founding a synagogue in a traditionally non-Jewish region.

“I’m not worried about it,” said Cooke, who will host a Havdalah later this month at her house for the synagogue. “I think there are more Jewish people out in the St. Charles area than people realize.”

It’s unclear whether the new synagogue will affiliate but if so it will likely be with the Conservative movement, Dorn said. At present, there are three Conservative institutions in the St. Louis area, the closest being west St. Louis County’s Congregation B’nai Amoona. Discussions are underway within the board and no application has been filed yet with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Another option is simply to continue without affiliation.

“Our goal is to make sure that we are inclusive,” Dorn said. “There’s a growing trend in Judaism to be post-denominational and we’re looking very seriously in that direction.”

In any event, leadership agrees that building connections outside of monthly service times is vital.

“One of the things that’s nice is that we’ve all had a lot more social interaction while trying to get this synagogue started,” said Robin Moll, 30, a St. Peters resident and the new congregation’s treasurer.

She recently hosted a congregational “wine and cheese nosh” at her family’s sukkah. The synagogue also held its first Sunday school class with an apple-picking experience at Eckert’s Farm. Future event plans include a Purim spiel in March and a zoo field trip in April, according to the newsletter.

A.J. Moll, Robin’s husband, still has a place with both St. Peters congregations. A member of B’nai Torah since age 8, the 32-year-old remains at his original synagogue but has put in an application to become a part of Ahavat Shalom as well. He thinks synergy will develop between the two and is glad that two Shabbats are now covered for St. Charles area Jews.

“It’s an added value,” he said.