The Year in Review: St. Louis Jewish news in 2015

Dignitaries take up golden shovels at Covenant Place’s Feb. 17 official ground-breaking  ceremony. 

By Jewish Light Staff

The year 2015 in the St. Louis Jewish community was filled with new beginnings and new events. It also had its share of celebrations and condemnations, the latter focused on leaders locally, nationally and internationally. 

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January saw construction begin on what is to be the new Covenant Place I apartments on the Millstone campus, scheduled to open this spring. The project represents only the first phase of a larger effort that would replace all three of the apartment buildings for older adults over the next several years using a combination of existing real estate and land acquired from the Jewish Community Center. (In December, Covenant Place received approval from the state for tax credits and loans that moves Phase II closer to reality, with construction to start later this year.)

A panel of seven local Jewish women spiritual leaders came together for a discussion about the challenges and triumphs of their profession. The gathering, attended by hundreds in the community, was heralded as “historic.” The event was the brainchild of Women’s Philanthropy, a division of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. 

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A massive, $300,000 St. Louis Jewish community demographic study was released in February, showing that Jews in St. Louis appear more numerous, more diverse and more likely to be intermarried compared to a study from two decades ago. Other notable changes from the new study point to a 14 percent increase in the number of local Jews, to 61,000 in 2014 from 53,400 in 1995; a 34 percent increase in Jewish households (those with at least one Jewish adult), to 32,900 from 24,600; and a 50 percent increase in all people in Jewish households — 89,300 compared to 59,400.

“With the data at hand, we will be in a stronger position to strategically meet, recognize and respond to the needs of our community,” said Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Federation, which coordinated the study. 

February also marked the beginning of a new monthly section in the Jewish Light called “Mishpacha,” with a focus on Jewish parenting and family life. It appears in the fourth issue of every month.

Sadly, February also saw the suicide of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Minutes before the shooting, Schweich had phoned two reporters to schedule a time to discuss what he evidently felt was an effort to undermine his Republican bid for governor by creating an implication that he was Jewish.

On the subject of suicide, one of the more moving local stories surrounded the circumstances behind the death of 18-year-old Michael Worth. The Shaare Emeth congregant had suffered for many years in silence from depression and anxiety. The March story in the Light brought to the forefront the tragedy of teen suicide, and the need to bring more attention to mental illness and mental disorders to avoid such tragic circumstances whenever possible.

Congregation Shaare Emeth, as well as the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, celebrated Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Stiffman’s 50 years in the rabbinate. Stiffman joined Shaare Emeth as an assistant rabbi in 1965 and rose through the ranks, becoming senior rabbi in 1971. When he initially took the job, he thought he and his wife would be in St. Louis for a year or two before heading back to the East Coast.

Israelis living in St. Louis were largely wary of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election to a fourth term, saying they expected little to change in Israel under his leadership. 

The Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry hired Judy Berkowitz as director in March. Berkowitz was previously CEO of St. Louis nonprofit Kids in the Middle. The following month, the food pantry’s volunteers were named one of the year’s Jewish Light’s Unsung Heroes, featured in the Light’s Oy! Magazine and honored during an awards ceremony in May. The other Unsung Heroes of 2015 were Amy Fenster Brown, Debbie Caplin, Sherri Goldman, Wayne Kaufman, Dorothy Meyerson, Mark Rodgers, Donald Roth, Tali Stadler and Harvey Wallace.

April 13 marked the one-year anniversary of the shootings by a white supremacist at two Jewish community institutions in the Kansas City area, which left three people dead. Light Editor Ellen Futterman traveled across the state to interview Mindy Corporon, the mother of one shooting victim and the daughter of another, in advance of a large “Peace Walk” and other community memorial events to remember those killed. (In August, Frazier Glenn Miller was found guilty of three counts of capital murder for the shooting deaths; in November, the judge followed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Miller to death.)

Also in April, the University of Missouri-St. Louis received a boost when the campus announced that Drs. Susan Feigenbaum and Jay Pepose were earmarking $100,000 toward the creation of a new house near campus for Jewish life. The plan envisions a facility that could be utilized by Jewish organizations in the area, including Hillel and Chabad on Campus. Feigenbaum and Pepose also endowed a special UMSL scholarship fund for children and grandchildren of congregants at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. An initial gift of $10,000 will help fund educational fees for a student to attend UMSL full-time.

Hundreds of people turned out for the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration, this year held at Kol Rinah. The event, taking place 70 years after the end of World War II, highlighted survivors’ stories of liberation and survival after the war. 

In May, Chabad of Greater St. Louis embarked upon the rebuilding of its Lazaroff Center on Delmar Boulevard. The $1.3 million project includes a totally revamped interior and a fresh look to the exterior. Chabad director Rabbi Yosef Landa said while the building’s square footage will remain the same, the redesigned space will be more versatile and functional, enabling Chabad to host more programming on site. (An online 24-hour funding campaign later in the year helped secure $160,000 of the funding to complete the project.)

Also in May, Missouri Torah Institute announced it would be relocating from its home at Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha congregation to a new, 8-acre campus at 1809 Clarkson Rd. in Chesterfield, which formerly housed the St. Joseph School for the Deaf. A $6.4 million capital campaign provided funds for the purchase of the campus and for renovations. The Orthodox school for boys started the fall 2015 semester at the new campus, and now has 85 boys and young men attending high school and three post-high school grade levels.

In May and June, the Light explored “Our kids and anti-Semitism” through a series of stories and a companion community discussion event, part of Can We Talk? — a collaboration between the Light, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council. 

Jewish World War I veteran Sgt. William Shemin was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in June by President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. The event marked the culmination of years of work by his daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth, who lives in the St. Louis area, to have her father’s heroism recognized with the military’s highest honor. It is universally believed that Shemin, who died in 1973, was initially overlooked for this award because he was Jewish. Shemin-Roth was moved to advocate for a review of her father’s military records in 2001, after reading of similar laws requiring reviews of medals of minorities in other wars.

A half-dozen St. Louis teens decided on non-traditional paths after their high school graduation, making aliyah and joining the Israel Defense Forces. Parents expressed mixed emotions after learning the news, including pride in their children’s drive to support and protect Israel as well as concern for their safety. 

Eighteen local Jewish organizations took place in this year’s PrideFest St. Louis in June, which celebrated the Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriages. “The decision means so much to me,” said Joseph Auteberry, an organizer for the local group Q Jews. “For so many people, they are going to finally be able to have the same rights as anyone else in this country.”

This summer, a new branch of Hillel was formed at Maryville University. In lieu of a campus rabbi, the group is being directed by Erin Schreiber. However, Schreiber said it has partnerships with clergy and congregations from around the area who can provide assistance, including Rabbi Jordan Gerson of the longstanding St. Louis Hillel at Washington University.

In July, Jewish congregations took part in an effort by local churches and other houses of worship to raise funds to help several predominantly black churches in the South struck by arson. The interfaith fund raised more than $700,000, well above the fund’s initial goal of $250,000.

During the National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis Section’s 15th annual Back-to-School Store, 520 volunteers helped more than 1,200 local students get ready for the school year. NCJW announced that the event will move from Central Reform Congregation to Temple Israel in 2016, where even more children will be able to be served. 

A couple of local organizations celebrated major milestones in August, with the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center of St. Louis marking its 20th anniversary with a major gala event and the Jewish Community Center holding its 25th year of the Tour de Fun for young families.  

Jewish high school Yeshivat Kadimah started its third year with a new principal, Rabbi Naftali Rothstein. He was hired after a lengthy search for a successor to Rabbi Moshe Shulman, who helped create the school and acted in an interim role as its head.

 

 

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis drew more than 600 people to its Olive Groove event in September, pairing the organization’s 114th annual meeting with a major community block party, held in Public Media Commons in Grand Center. Harvey Wallace was introduced as the new Jewish Federation board chair, taking the reins from Patty F. Croughan. The first-of-its-kind Jewish Federation event was intended to build community and show that the Federation is relevant to groups with diverse interests, including young Jewish adults and families.

Around the country, synagogues outside of the Orthodox community continued to search for ways to stay vital despite declining membership.  In September, Kol Rinah agreed to sell its University City building to the Journey church in exchange for one of the Christian organization’s buildings in Clayton.  Shaare Zedek and Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (BSKI) had merged in 2013 to form the Conservative synagogue. 

In October, the Jewish Community Relations Council hired Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, who had previously worked at Bais Abraham congregation, to succeed director Batya Abramson- Goldstein. She retired after 26 years with the agency; 12 as its executive director. 

The local Jewish community again had to figure out how to respond to terrorist attacks in Israel. After a spate of attacks in which Palestinians stabbed or ran over pedestrians, some local Jews became frustrated that Jewish Federation leaders decided not to organize a public rally in support for Israel. Undeterred, these individuals brought out hundreds of Jews for a rally in November at LaVerne Collins Park in Creve Coeur, featuring local rabbis, musicians and State Sen. Jill Schupp, among others. 

There were also questions this year about whether the African-American and Jewish communities could find common cause in fighting for social justice. On Nov. 3, a black University of Missouri student, Jonathan Butler, started a hunger strike after a swastika made from feces was discovered in the bathroom of a student dorm. Students had already been protesting because they felt the MU president had not provided sufficient response after racist incidents involving black students on campus, and Butler said he would strike until the president resigned, which he did on Nov. 9. Hours later, MU’s chancellor resigned as well.

The incidents “strengthened relations among the minority student leaders,” said Thalia Sass, president of the Jewish Student Organization at MU.  Despite the solidarity among students, Karen Aroesty, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois, cautioned against linking racism against black students with anti-Semitism.

“Where I think we have to be very careful as a community is in creating some sort of common parallel between our anxieties as Jews and those of African-American students and what they are feeling right now,” said Aroesty. 

Questions over linkage came to the forefront again in December when Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation, who has been a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, faced harsh criticism about her support for Israel.  Hands Up United displayed a picture of Talve on its Facebook page with the hashtag “#realterrorist” and the words “supports genocide and international apartheid.” 

St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace, a small left-wing group, also wrote an open letter to Talve: “We can no longer sit patiently by while you defended the oppression of Palestinians at Israeli hands,” the letter states. 

Members of Talve’s congregation and others came to her defense.

“I am numb to the ignorance over at Hands Up United … who are willing to destroy their biggest (Black Lives Matter) ally in the name of the Palestine/Israel geopolitical and religious conflict,” Ed Reggi, an actor, gay activist and CRC congregant wrote on Facebook. 

Talve was upset by the campaign waged against her but she did not shy away from addressing social justices issues when she visited the White House and led the prayers for the annual afternoon Hanukkah party and menorah lighting there on Dec. 9.

“I stand here today with my fierce family of clergy and Black Lives Matter activists who took to the streets of Ferguson to stand firm until all members of the community would see God in the face of the other,” Talve said, standing in front of President Barack Obama and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. “And today we stand with the President of the United States and the President of Israel who today stand together at this critical moment in history when we must do everything to ensure security for Israelis and justice for Palestinians as allies committed to a lasting peace.”