U. City Shul strives for community outreach role

Rabbi Elazar Grunberger

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Todd Kaufman wasn’t particularly certain he’d like the program at the U. City Shul but he went anyway.

“I don’t know if I was in a bad mood or what but I just thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be good,'” he recalled. “‘I’m probably not going to enjoy this. I’m just going to go.'”

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His sour mood didn’t last long. Despite his trepidation, the 36-year-old found himself “blown away” by the event, a special concert by noted musician Sam Glaser.

“The rabbi’s batting a thousand with the people he’s brought into town,” said an enthusiastic Kaufman, noting other great experiences he’s had in the same venue. “For me, it’s been amazing. I can only hope it has been for other people as well.”

Rabbi Elazar Grunberger hopes so, too. Kaufman’s sentiments are precisely the type the rabbi has been trying to cultivate for more than a year through the introduction of unique programming designed to engage and unify the Jewish community and remake his organization into an “outreach shul.” It’s part of Grunberger’s larger vision for the congregation as not just a synagogue but a beit knesset – a house of assembly – a place where Jews can go not just to worship but also to gather regardless of affiliation to partake of opportunities to educate and share.

“We need to know what being Jewish is all about,” he said. “The U.City Shul is an open Jewish center where individuals can come and explore, learn and question, and get answers to life’s tough questions.  Building a solid Jewish foundation will ensure a stable edifice and strong future.”

Also known as Beth HaMedrosh Hagodol Sha’arei Chesed, the U.City Shul has undergone its share of labels in recent years. Initially called Chesed Shel Emeth, it was renamed Sha’arei Chesed in the 1990s and acquired its present moniker after a merger in 2006. Today, it serves about 60 families.

Grunberger has been at the shul for almost a decade and a half but recently left his position with the local Aish HaTorah – he is still a part of Aish HaTorah International’s leadership – so he could dedicate himself full-time to building the synagogue. The fruits of that dedication has been realized as a series of monthly programs which have been running since late last year. November’s Glaser event was only the most recent offering. In October, the congregation played host to a talk on parenting by Slovie Jungreis Wolff, author of “Raising a Child with Soul.” Previous topics have included the power of prayer, Tish B’Av, messiah, and the danger posed by Iran.

Future events are already in the works. On Sunday, Dec. 19, “An Evening of Deals and Delights” will feature a wine and sushi bar along with a silent auction and Jewish talent show. Author and educator Rabbi Noach Orlowek is slated to visit in January while in March, “Discover This – The Ultimate Seminar” will cover a wide variety of topics – from the importance of saying thank you to the meaning of life – over three days with Rabbi Tzvi Gluckin.

“We’re getting more than 100 people per program on a regular basis,” said Grunberger, who noted that he’s expanded the congregational mailing and email lists to reach Jewish households in the seven Zip Codes surrounding the area.

A significant number of the people he’s attracted are like Kaufman, who lives in neighboring Richmond Heights and isn’t a part of the congregation. In fact, he is a member at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, a Conservative synagogue. For Grunberger, who estimates that about 30 percent of attendees at the shul’s events aren’t members, that’s not a problem. In fact, it’s a goal. He hopes his programs draw in audiences from all parts of the Jewish community at all levels of affiliation from all streams.

The rabbi notes that most Jews are either not affiliated with a congregation or are affiliated “marginally” in that they only attend for the High Holidays or other special occasions.

“That leaves a void,” he said. “Many people are obviously not connected as much as it would be good for Jews to be connected to their community.”

Grunberger aims to target those who are a part of the community but are not necessarily Orthodox. It’s important to let them know that he is a “24/7” rabbi always available to help and the U. City Shul is there for them.

“I want to be able to address their spiritual needs and to answer questions that they might have but never had the chance to explore about Judaism and being Jewish,” he said. “I just want people to know that for Jews who are looking for a rabbi and spiritual direction, we’re available without strings attached.”

Maplewood resident William Kafig is certainly satisfied with Grunberger’s approach.

“Let me put it this way,” he said. “Today, I just joined the shul and gave Rabbi Grunberger my check.”

His new membership represents quite an evolution for Kafig who said his secular upbringing left him intimidated by rabbis and the Orthodox movement. Jewish learning at Aish HaTorah with Rabbis Grunberger and Shmuel Greenwald changed that.

“It’s a wonderful learning experience finding out just how wrong I’d been,” he said.

Now the 46-year-old is hoping to move back to University City. Though he missed the Glaser concert, he’s been impressed with the other offerings, particularly the Learner’s Service, an idea that’s been a part of the shul and Aish HaTorah for many years. He feels the programs are very engaging.

“I’ve yet to find one in which I didn’t find meaning,” he said. “I’m just in a place where every piece of information I can get is a step in the right direction.”

And for Grunberger, that’s precisely the idea.

“That’s really the main thing,” he said. “I like to translate what we teach into ‘How is this practical? How is this relevant to our lives today?'”

To learn more about U.City Shul or its events, contact the synagogue at 314-863-7485 or visit online at www.ucityshul.org.