Tumultuous 2017 brought joy, sadness to Jewish community

Participants at the ‘Walk in Support of Israel’ hold signs at the corner of Schuetz Road and Lindbergh Boulevard. More than 500 people attended the event, held in May. Photo: Andrew Kerman

JEWISH LIGHT STAFF

The year 2017 had its share of highpoints and lowpoints for the St. Louis Jewish community, perhaps the lowest of which came early in the year with a series of bomb threats to local Jewish institutions and the desecration of more than 150 headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City. To date, no arrests have been made for the vandalism.

Still, there were plenty of reasons to celebrate as well, including a successful “Walk in Support of Israel” in May to honor the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and a total solar eclipse, which united local Jews from all denominations, as well as the unaffiliated, to watch the rare occurrence of when the sun is entirely covered by the moon.

 

January

 

Jews entered the White House (Jared Kushner, senior adviser to President Donald Trump) and the Missouri Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City. Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, became the first Jewish governor of Missouri during inauguration ceremonies Jan. 9. A Parkway North High School graduate who attended B’nai El Congregation, Greitens succeeded Gov. Jay Nixon. Greitens, a Republican, had not held elected office and ran as an “outsider” during the campaign, promising to bring change to state government. A year later, his accomplishments include new abortion restrictions, right-to-work legislation and a statewide prescription drug monitoring system. He has faced criticism for a perceived lack of transparency — including reports that his administration used an app to delete text messages — and for his handling of the State Board of Education, including firing its commissioner despite opposition from one of Greitens’ appointees. 

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Staff and members of the Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur were forced to evacuate the building Jan. 18 after receiving a bomb threat during a telephone call. The center wasone of about 30 Jewish institutions across the country that day to receive threats.

 

February

 

The St. Louis Jewish community was further unsettled and received international attention Feb. 20 when employees of Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City discovered that more than 150 headstones had been knocked over or damaged. People then searched the grounds to find out if their family members’ headstones had been affected. University City police and Jewish leaders cautioned against labeling the vandalism as anti-Semitism or a hate crime until police learned more about the incident and the perpetrators’ motivations. 

A day after the discovery of the vandalism, Greitens announced that he would visit the cemetery for a cleanup. 

“There are simple things that need to be done, but at times like this, it’s simple things that send a powerful signal about who we are as a state and as a community,” Greitens wrote on Facebook in asking for volunteers.

And amid criticism against Trump for not condemning anti-Semitism after the bomb threats, Vice President Mike Pence decided that he would join Greitens at the cemetery. 

“There is no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism,” Pence said at the cemetery while standing aboard a flatbed truck with Greitens. “I must tell you, the people of Missouri are inspiring the nation by your love and care for this place and for the Jewish community, and I want to thank you for that inspiration — for showing the world what America is really all about.”

Almost all of the headstones had been repaired by the time the elected officials arrived, but they were joined by more than 1,000 volunteers who carried rakes and bags to collect leaves. Two Muslim activists started an online campaign to help the cemetery and raised more than $140,000, far more than the local cemetery needed. They did not have to wait long to use some of the additional money because less than a week after the vandalism, more than 100 headstones were knocked over at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. 

Jewish Federation of St. Louis also raised more than $136,000 and announced that it would use the funds to improve security around Jewish institutions. The organization also later hired a community security director.

March 

But law enforcement did find out who was behind some of the bomb threats: Juan Thompson, a former journalist from St. Louis. He was arrested March 3 and charged with cyberstalking. According to U.S. prosecutors, Thompson, who had worked for the Intercept news website, made at least eight bomb threats as part of a revenge plot against an ex-girlfriend. In June, he pleaded guilty; last month, he was sentenced to five years in prison. A couple of weeks after Thompson’s arrest, an anti-fraud squad in Israel arrested Michael Kadar, an Israeli-American teenager, and accused him of making bomb threats against more than 2,000 institutions, including Jewish community centers.

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The board of the Conservative congregation Kol Rinah in University City approved a plan to swap buildings with the Journey Christian Church in Clayton. The Jewish congregation hopes to renovate its new building and move in by next January. 

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Thomas R. Green, a longtime St. Louis lawyer, past president of Federation and a co-founder of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, died March 27 at age 83. Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of Federation, said of Green: “What really struck me profoundly was his intimate connection with Israel and his strong support. He recognized that Israel had to be part of the Federation’s role as part of what made us distinctive as an organization.”

 

April

 

Chelsea Clinton told students at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School on April 3 that “you may not be old enough to vote yet, but you are old enough to go to a town hall and ask a question.

“All engagement should always start with what we are most passionate about, what we care about the most or what we feel angriest about,” said Clinton, who is married to a Jew and was promoting her book “It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going.”

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Close to 800 people attended the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center’s annual Yom HaShoah commemoration, focusing this year on “Survivors and Witnesses in Our Community,” at Congregation B’nai Amoona. 

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The St. Louis Jewish Light redesigned its print edition and installed Steve Gallant as its new board president.

 

May

 

Exactly 100 years after he died, Jacob Weinthal’s remains were laid to rest at Mount Sinai Cemetery in a burial officiated by Rabbi Susan Talve. Weinthal, a native of Germany, died in 1917 with no known relatives. His remains were cremated and stored at the Hillcrest Abbey Crematory before being transferred in 1998 to Valhalla Cemetery in North County, which has thousands of unclaimed remains. A distant cousin of Weinthal’s searched for his remains so that he could finally have a proper burial.

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Jewish Federation of St. Louis announced that it had raised $9.56 million during its 2016 annual campaign. That amount represented a 2.3 percent increase from the previous year. The nonprofit shortened its campaign in 2016 to 100 days from more than 16 months in part because of a decrease in the number of donors over the past two decades.

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More than 500 St. Louisans took part in a “Walk in Support of Israel” to honor the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

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Nine individuals and one couple were recognized as the 2017 Jewish Light Unsung Heroes at a community event at the Jewish Community Center Arts & Education Building.  The annual event, which began in 2010, shines a light on individuals who volunteer to help the St. Louis Jewish community, and Jewish St. Louisans who volunteer not only within the local Jewish community but also the community at large. These Unsung Heroes were also profiled in the Light’s Oy! magazine.

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June

 

In a special section to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the Light spoke to several Israelis living in St. Louis as well as St. Louisans who had watched from afar to recall their memories of those tumultuous days from June 5-10, 1967. Other stories in the section looked at how the St. Louis Jewish community came together during the Six-Day War to support Israel and how the war changed American Jews. The section was made possible by a generous grant from the Jewish Community Relations Council.

 

July

 

The Jewish Light and staff writer Eric Berger won two Rockower Awards given by the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) for work published in 2016. 

AJPA honors excellence in Jewish journalism and represents Jewish media organizations, journalists and communications professionals.

Berger earned a first-place award for excellence in a multimedia story about matzah making, and second place in excellence in news reporting for a story about Jewish families touched by the heroin epidemic. The Light has won 30 Rockower awards in the past 10 years.

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St. Louisans Daniel Rueben and Jacob Lefton were part of the USA Junior Hockey Team that took home the gold medal at the Israel Maccabiah Games. 

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Several hundred protestors gathered in University City to speak out against what an organizer said was “Israel’s heavy-handed response” in its increased security efforts at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem after three Arab-Israelis shot and killed two Israeli police officers. 

They were met with counter-protesters. 

 

August

 

A total solar eclipse was celebrated throughout the St. Louis Jewish community with watch parties at places such as Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and Central Reform Congregation. Mirowitz celebrated “through a Jewish lens” with music by Rick Recht (a Mirowitz dad) and Jewish and secular eclipse learning. Southern and western parts of St. Louis city and county were under the path of totality, when the sun was entirely covered by the moon.

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The Parkway School District came under fire when it decided to move all of its 2018 graduations to a Saturday in May. The change prompted an outcry from Jewish students, parents and community leaders who said some observant Jewish students would not be able to participate because of Shabbat restrictions. The following month, the board reversed that decision so that two of the schools —Parkway North and Parkway Central high schools — would hold their graduations on a Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, instead of Saturday.

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After announcing his decision in March to leave Bais Abraham Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in University City where he served for 13 years, Rabbi Hyim Shafner began as head rabbi at Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. In 2014, Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Fruendel was arrested for recording women showering at a mikvah and eventually was sentenced to 6½ years in prison and fined $13,000. 

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Lois Caplan, beloved Jewish Light columnist of more than 50 years, died at age 93. 

 

September

 

B’nai Amoona congregant Lynnsie Kantor donated a kidney to the congregation’s Cantor Emeritus Leon S. Lissek, who lives in Teaneck, N.J. The two worked through Renewal, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit that strives to save lives through kidney donations. Founded in 2006, its roots are in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community of Borough Park.

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Covenant Place celebrated groundbreaking for Phase 2 of its $84 million plan to re-create its three-building housing complex on the Millstone campus. The 102-unit building is scheduled to open next year.

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Jewish Federation of St. Louis held its 116th annual meeting at the Magic House in Kirkwood. Gerry Greiman was welcomed as Federation’s new chairman. The meeting also paid tribute to the late Tom Green, who died in March, and had served as national vice president of the United Jewish Appeal and as chair of endowment development for the Federation system nationally.

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Local Jewish schools and congregations sent books and other supplies to help their Jewish counterparts in Houston, which was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey.

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Central Reform Congregation served as a “safe space” for people protesting the Jason Stockley verdict. Stockley, a white police officer, was found not guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of an African-American man in 2011 after a high-speed chase.

October

 

The Jewish Light unveiled its online digital archives, which contains more than 70 years of local Jewish history dating back to 1947. It is offered through Newspapers.com.

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The Jewish Community Relations Council received a $15,000 grant to expand its Student-to-Student program to other cities. The program sends Jewish high school students to schools where their peers have little to no contact with the Jewish community.

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St. Louis native Damon Rich received a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, which pays a stipend of $125,000 for five consecutive years with no strings attached. He was awarded the grant, according to the MacArthur Foundation, for “creating vivid and witty strategies to design and build places that are more democratic and accountable to their residents.”

 

November

 

Gov. Greitens and Russel Neiss, a local Jewish coder, were named to the Forward 50, the Jewish online publication’s annual list of the “most influential, accomplished and interesting American Jews.” 

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The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased significantly this year, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. From January through September, there were 1,299 reported anti-Semitic incidents nationwide, compared with 779 over the same period the year before. In Missouri, there were 14 incidents during that time, compared with eight in 2016.

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Greitens visited Israel on a trade mission, meeting with business and political leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The governor also announced that Missouri had reached a memorandum of understanding with HackerUSA, an Israeli firm, to provide cybersecurity training to Missouri colleges and universities.

 

December

 

Jewish Student Union’s 15th annual gala marked the completion of JSU’s Torah of Unity, a project launched at last year’s gala. JSU commissioned a sofer (scribe) in Jerusalem to write a Torah specifically for youth. JSU is a nondenominational program for local Jewish teens, particularly those attending non-Jewish schools.

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Jewish Rock Radio, a St. Louis-based online streaming service led by Rick Recht, partnered with PJ Library, the organization that sends children free Jewish books, to launch a new online radio station. PJ Library Radio features  Jewish artists who can be heard through the platform’s website or mobile apps. 

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Chabad at Mizzou purchased the house that the organization had been renting. Rabbi Avraham Lapine, who directs the center with his wife, Channy Lapine, said the purchase demonstrates that despite a few racist and anti-Semitic incidents in recent years on campus, “Jewish life is thriving and people have nothing to fear.”

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Volunteers turned out in droves for the seventh annual Jewish-Muslim Day of Community Service, held Dec. 25 by the JCRC’s Milford and Lee Bohm Social Justice Center and the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.