Top local stories of 2011 reflect changes in Jewish community

The devastating tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. and the St. Louis Jewish community’s efforts to provide relief became of the top local news stories of 2011.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

St. Louis had a year of ups and downs in 2011, saying farewell to some beloved communal leaders, one local congregation and two longtime kosher mainstays. The community pulled together in response to the tragic devastation of the tornado that struck Joplin. Jewish organizations and congregations in town had some major changes in leadership and location and two Jewish day schools announced they would merge. Look back upon those stories and more in the following month-by-month roundup of some of the top local Jewish stories of 2011.


Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin, wife of Rabbi Sholom Rivkin, the Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the Vaad Hoeir/United Orthodox Jewish community, died on Friday, Jan. 7. Rebbetzin Rivkin, who was married to Rabbi Rivkin for 56 years, was herself a descendant of a long line of esteemed European rabbis, and was an accomplished woman in her own right. She was the founding co-chair, with Judy Zisk Lincoff, of the Jewish Council Against Family Violence and a former member of the Jewish Federation Board of Directors.

Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ top executive, Barry Rosenberg, announced he plans to leave his post at the expiration of his contract in October, 2013. Rosenberg came to St. Louis in 1993 after directing the Jewish Federation of North Jersey.


Pratzel’s Bakery, the venerated establishment that provided for the needs of the kosher-keeping community, closed its doors after nearly a century in business. Elaine Pratzel, 63, a member of the family that ran the iconic store for so many decades, said, “Part of me wants to break into tears all the time. Another part wants to break out into the Cheshire Cat’s grin because we’ve done this for so long and it’s taken 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all of our lives.” The following month, Jon Mills, a Clayton-based filmmaker, announced that he had purchased the recipes from the Pratzel family and would open a successor facility to offer its products, later named Pratzel’s Eastgate Bakery.

Also in February, Michael Staenberg, whose personal generosity and vision resulted in the total transformation of the Jewish Community Center with the completion of the JCC Staenberg Family Complex, stepped down one year early as JCC chairman, a post he held since 2006. He stressed that he will remain active on the JCC Board and remains committed to the completion of the JCC’s capital campaign.


Congregation Kol Am, with “sadness,” voted to formally dissolve the 37-year-old synagogue with a membership of nearly 70 families. Due to financial pressures and its small membership, the congregation’s board reluctantly, but “overwhelmingly” voted to close its doors. Some of the temple’s fiscal problems related to the costs incurred by the construction of its 22,000-square foot facility in Chesterfield, where it relocated in 2006.


The St. Louis Jewish Light honored 10 “Unsung Heroes” in the St. Louis Jewish community. The honorees were: Dr. Rebecca Aft, Charles Baron, Maris Berg, Phyllis Cantor, Fran Cohen, Jack Cohen, Merle Hartstein, Fritzi Lainoff, David Oughton and Jewish Prison Outreach. The honorees were selected for their unique contributions to the overall well-being of the Jewish and general communities of St. Louis.


Jews United for Justice honored two local judges with its prestigious Heschel-King Award, named in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King during the civil rights movement. Honored were Judge Richard Teitelman, Associate Justice on the Missouri Supreme Court and former Judge Ronnie White. The JUJ honors a member of the Jewish community and a member of the African-American community each year for their exemplary service in the spirit of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel.

Also in May, Ronit Sherwin, founding Director of Nishmah: the Jewish Women’s Project, accepted a position with the Hillel at the University of Delaware; Elie Wiesel, in commencement remarks at Washington University, expressed support and hope for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.


Jewish congregations, organizations and individuals provided substantial relief to the victims of the deadly tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo. on May 22. St. Louis’ United Hebrew Congregation sent a caravan of Shabbat and general supplies to the United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin (which is unrelated to U.H. of St. Louis). The JCRC, Jewish Federation, Central Reform Congregation, B’nai El, Shaare Emeth and BSKI also pitched in, among many other groups and individuals.

Rabbi Elazar Grunberger, spiritual leader of the U. City Shul and the longtime director of Aish HaTorah of St. Louis, took a position on the staff of the Aish HaTorah world headquarters in Jerusalem. He and his wife Brocha were honored at a gala dinner for their many years of service to the Jewish community.

The Jewish Light, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council launched the “Can We Talk” series, an ongoing quarterly series pairing news stories, commentaries and a community discussion event. The inaugural Can We Talk? Focused on “Culture and Conflict: Jewish Issues in the Arts,” prompted by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of the controversial modern opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

Irving and Kay Diamant closed their kosher meat market in University City after more than 50 years in business. The closing leaves only one storefront kosher butcher shop in St. Louis, Kohn’s Kosher Meat and Deli in Creve Coeur.


Rabbi Howard Kaplansky made the transition to Rabbi Emeritus of United Hebrew Congregation, effective July 1. Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg was installed as his successor. Kaplansky has served at U.H. for almost 30 years and is a past president of both the Jewish Community Relations Council and the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, and serves as Chair of the Michael and Barbara Newmark JCRC Institute for Human Relations.

The Jewish Light’s 2010 series on hate crimes was honored with a Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in North American Jewish Journalism by the American Jewish Press Association. The national award was presented to Editor Ellen Futterman, who received a first-place prize for “Comprehensive Coverage or Investigative Journalism.” The Light’s special two-part report “The State of Hate,” was published in May and June of 2010 (available online at


Alan Arkin, Oscar-winning actor, whose early career included performing at the Crystal Palace in the old Gaslight Square, was announced as the keynote speaker of the 2011 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, now in its 33rd season.

Nusach Hari B’nai Zion dedicated its new shul in Olivette with a procession of the congregation’s Torah’s and a ceremony featuring a host of community leaders and dignitaries. The $2 million facility, located at 650 North Price Road, replaces NHBZ’s previous home on Olive Boulevard in University City.


Solomon Schechter Day School, part of the Conservative Jewish movement, and the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy, reached tentative agreement on merging the two day schools. Cheryl Maayan, the current head of school at RJA was named the head of school at the merged school, to be housed at the SSDS building at 324 South Mason Road. RJA had been renting classroom space from B’nai El Congregation.

The same month, Robert Millstone, head of the Millstone Bangert Construction Co., succeeded Sanford Neuman as Chairman of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Millstone is a grandson of the late Isadore E. Millstone, major community benefactor who served as Honorary President of the Jewish Federation, and who donated the 108 acres for the JCC and the Millstone Jewish Community Campus.


Rabbi Sholom Rivkin, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the Vaad Hoeir/United Orthodox Jewish Community, died Oct. 1 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 85 years old. Rabbi Rivkin, whose wife Paula had died in January, was highly esteemed not only in St. Louis for his welcoming approach to all members of the local Jewish community, but nationally and internationally as well for his expertise on halacha, or Jewish law. He served for years on the National Bet Din, Rabbinical Court of the Orthodox Union, and his opinions were sought around the world. He was the fourth Chief Orthodox Rabbi of St. Louis, serving in that role since 1983.


The National Council of Jewish Women – St. Louis Section, moved into a new location on Lindbergh Boulevard for its resale shop and offices. NCJW purchased the former location of the Hopper Furs Co. Ellen Alper, NCJW executive director said the new facility will greatly improve the resale shop’s ability to serve its customers and the NCJW staff to perform their duties in a more spacious and efficient facility.

United Hebrew formally installed Brigitte Rosenberg as Senior Rabbi, a role she has served since July 1.


Israeli shlichim (emissaries serving as community educators) from around North America came to St. Louis for a Torah MiTzion Kollel conference at Bais Abraham. TMK-St. Louis held a gala event whose honorees included Rabbi Boaz Genut, the founder of the St. Louis branch of TMK.

The same month, up to 600 people volunteered during the Jewish-Muslim Day of Service held on Dec. 25. The Jewish Community Relations Council, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis organized the event, which sent volunteers to 21 different sites in the St. Louis area.