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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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‘Tzedakah’ has long been key for Sue Picus

Sue Picus

Working jigsaw puzzles is a rare means of relaxation for Sue Picus. The volunteer work regimen she has so happily embraced has also been a piecemeal activity. But Picus has taken the latter to a far more grandiose scale.

The long-time registered clinical dietician refers to herself as a dabbler. But while doing so, Picus has happily latched onto nearly every volunteer opportunity she has encountered. That includes both leadership and manual work segments.

“I spent my career working in hospitals, helping people and I loved it,” said the 66-year-old Durham/Chapel Hill, N.C. native. “My favorite part was visiting the person in the hospital room and trying to find something for them to eat or help if they needed extra protein. I think my personality is (that of) a helper. Even growing up, I did a lot of things and was usually on this committee or that committee, but not as much as this.”

In nominating Picus as an Unsung Hero, fellow Shaare Emeth congregant Stanford Shanker put an exclamation mark on Picus’ helpful activities. He referred to a line from San Francisco-born rabbi, author and speaker Bradley Shavit Artson: “She is the embodiment of the following quote: ‘Tzedakah is not about giving; it is about being.’”

While husband Joel continued his career as an oncologist, currently for Washington University at Barnes Hospital’s Siteman Cancer Center, Picus became an at-home mom for their children, Joshua and Samuel. 

Shaare Emeth Rabbi Andrea Goldstein has known the Picus family the entire 25 years she’s worked at the synagogue. She’s been present at their life cycle events and taught their sons in confirmation class. Meanwhile, Picus served on preschool and religious school committees and is a current member of the Board of Trustees.

Picus first got involved at Shaare Emeth when she saw a call for help in a bulletin. A six-month old baby kept her in her house. Luckily, the request was for baking. She excitedly made brownies. A few years later, she cooked when they needed a pre-school dinner. 

Goldstein worked with her on the Jewish Fund for Human Needs (JFHN). Picus has been doing that since 2015, first as a member of the allocations committee, then chair of the larger committee from 2018-2020. She oversaw site visits to dozens of St. Louis non-profit organizations, and the process for distributing grant funds each year to small- and medium-sized nonprofit direct service organizations. Those focused on providing health care for the uninsured, food for the hungry, housing for the homeless, refugee assistance and emergency shelter for victims of abuse.

“It included outreach to organizations many would not have heard of before–ones that are doing profound work in our community without a lot of fame or recognition,” Goldstein said. “Sue always had this calm way about her with people we were meeting, was curious about the work they were doing and inspired about all the change she would see. As chair, she would carry through to the rest of the committee that enthusiasm to realize the ways in which even small actions can make a big difference. That’s what inspires the rest of the committee in the work of the Jewish Fund.” 

During 2021 and 2022, Picus helped the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association review the JFHN practices to craft a new vision for grant distribution. 

“I’ve found Sue to be incredibly thoughtful, generous and kind,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the JCRC, who also nominated Picus. “She’s really driven by the recognition that there’s so much to be done in the world, and realizes she has the capacity to be part of that change.” 

She added that the grants being awarded are not huge amounts of money, but each bit of work helped them get off the ground so those partnerships could ultimately make the difference for success in future years.

Sue Picus at Congregation Shaare Emeth.

“I love that job,” Picus said enthusiastically. “The function of the JFHN is to be the Jewish presence in the community, but they’re trying to go outside the Jewish community. The goal is to fund the wonderful organizations that have smaller budgets; sometimes ones with just $50,000. We visited all kinds of non-profits and chose people who were thrilled to get anything from about $1,000-$4,000 to help keep their organizations going.” 

Picus began serving as an Oasis volunteer instructor in 2012 with courses that included teaching healthy eating and nutrition to kids at Earth Dance Farm. She also teaches virtual healthy habits, and often lectures on healthy eating and hydration for aging. 

She added that her congregation also “came up with a gazillion projects and helped create a real sense of community” through its lengthy relationship with Bridgeton’s Room at the Inn.

Picus has also served as Mitzvah Day chair, accomplishing the value of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Shanker noted that, “Sue guided a large committee to find appropriate activities and trained captains for each project. She worked tirelessly to oversee every aspect of the program from supplies, budgets and engaging volunteers. In that process, Sue developed (on-going) relationships with a wide number of agencies.” 

Later, Mitzvah Day was replaced by a smaller scale Gathering of Gratitude, scheduled each year the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Picus co-chairs the event with Marcene Menendez. It includes providing needed supplies to Winter Outreach, the Humane Society, an agency that houses men with HIV, meals for Peter and Paul Shelter and collecting items for Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

“It’s an opportunity for the congregants to come together, and in gratitude, do something for others,” Picus said. “We work with Debbie Bram, our director of Lifelong Learning, and come up with the projects. One is always for the Humane Society. We make cat toys, dog toys and dog biscuits. The committee figures out how they’re going to do that. It goes out to the congregants to perform the various projects and deliver them.”

Picus still holds the Tzedek Committee chair in the congregation’s partnership with the city’s Oak Hill Elementary School, coordinating volunteers to work in their food pantry. The partnership also includes gathering supplies and a Christmas gift drive for needy families. This past year, she garnered more volunteer help in the food pantry and started the first ever Congregation Shaare Emeth staff afternoon of service at that school. 

The Tzedek Committee has several regularly occurring tasks, including running three pickups a week from St. Louis Bread Company locations. Picus is on that monthly rotation. At closing time, she heads to the Des Peres location close to her Crystal Lake home and packs her car with leftover bread, bagels and cookies. The next day, she takes it to the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

Goldstein added, “One of the ways Sue expresses her faith is through acts of service, and I believe that being engaged with acts of gemilut chasadim (performance of loving-kindness) helps her feel connected to Judaism and her congregation as well as to the broader St. Louis community.”

A major Picus project has been the time she gives to an Afghan family. It’s an offshoot of her volunteer work at the camp for refugees housed at the International Institute of St. Louis that Shaare Emeth has partnered with for awhile.

“Years ago, along with JCRC, we ran a summer camp at the International Institute,” said Picus. “When you come into the United States with refugee status, you’re sent to an agency, and are provided with a certain amount of money per person in your family, and given assistance for three months. They find you housing and sign you up for government programs which you qualify and assist with job finding.”

Two years ago, the International Institute was overwhelmed with the number of people fleeing Afghanistan. They didn’t hesitate to call Shaare Emeth because Shanker, a 2017 Jewish Light Unsung Hero, had previously adopted a family. This family would need a lot more assistance since it included a three-week-old baby and three other young children.

Picus helped orientate the new family to St. Louis and assisted in applying for various benefits. She also took the dad to get a WIC card and to the grocery store to teach him how to use it. She took the mom and children to countless doctor visits since the mom can’t drive.

Later, Picus organized the larger congregation to tutor the two older children. She and other volunteers still babysit the younger ones and drive the mom to English classes four mornings a week. Meanwhile, the dad works a full day then goes to English class three nights a week.

“It’s my nature to try and help people,” Picus said. “Also, our clergy at Congregation Shaare Emeth is oriented towards social justice work in helping our congregants and the larger community. You can’t hear the sermons and not talk to the rabbi or cantor about these things. We run so many opportunities. There’s always something popping up. You go to temple and we’re going to do ‘xyz’ to help. 

“I think of tzedakah as giving charity, whether it be money or time. Tzedek would mean justice. I look at it as not only doing, but also the advocacy and justice part of it. What can I do to make the world a better place?”

Picus kept reiterating that she doesn’t do any really big jobs — just a lot of little ones. She credited her husband for his support and the Shaare Emeth professional staff, specifically noting Bram, Goldstein and countless Tzedek and Gathering for Gratitude volunteers. 

“I’m frequently just the organizer who says, ‘Let me show you the information you need to do that job. And if you can do just that little piece of the job (like working a puzzle), we can all line up and get it accomplished,’” she said.

But Goldstein sees things differently.

“I feel that Sue Picus is a living definition of an Unsung Hero, as she gives of herself and helps where she can and never expects anything in return,” Goldstein said. “Her presence has made a difference in so many people’s lives.”

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