Young but wise, rabbi has settled in after first year at U. City Shul


Rabbi Binyomin Yudin will forever remember his first sermon.

Just 26 years old, he was the new assistant rabbi at Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Shaarei Chesed Shul in University City, working under his father-in law, Rabbi Elazar Grunberger.


“I will never forget that as long as I live. It was hard. It was daunting,” Yudin said.

But this was hardly a case of young nerves. Three days before the sermon, a serious car accident sent Grunberger and five of his children to the hospital on Oct. 11, 2006. Grunberger only suffered a concussion, but his 17-year-old daughter Tehilla and 7-year-old son Dovid faced life-threatening injuries.

“When I would visit him I didn’t know within the first week is this the last time I’m going to see him alive or not,” Yudin said of Dovid.

With his wife’s family in dire straights, Rabbi Yudin spoke to the congregation on a joyous holiday of all days.

“I basically told them, ‘This is Simchat Torah, it’s a time for us to celebrate the fact that we have the Torah and our connection with God,’ and I said, ‘Look around. I’m fearful for the future and I don’t know what’s going to be with our leader and what’s going to be with my siblings-in-law, but what I do know now is this is a time for us to be dancing and celebrating.'”

Two months into a job created for him by Grunberger, Yudin showed a maturity beyond his age.

“You don’t have all that experience. I don’t know that I could have handled it that way when I was 26,” Grunberger said.

Grunberger caught a small glimpse of his future son-in-law’s abilities in the summer of 2001, when Yudin worked as a counselor at Rausch Day Camp in St. Louis. He married Grunberger’s oldest daughter, Sora Liba, on Oct. 21, 2002. Four years later, the couple returned to Missouri after spending most of their time in Israel.

“I love St. Louis. I grew up here. I feel at home here and I’m so happy that my husband feels at home even though he didn’t grow up here,” Sora Liba Yudin said.

Born in Harrisburg, Pa., Yudin was raised in an Orthodox household in Baltimore. His father actually taught Talmud before making a drastic change, becoming a stockbroker. Yudin made a reverse move as a young adult, deciding to become a rabbi after passing the LSATS — a far cry from someone who was a “wild teenager by Orthodox standards,” according to Yudin. “I began to realize I really enjoyed interacting with people, helping people, teaching people,” Yudin said. “I felt that my calling in life was to be somebody who teaches and helps people with the things I’ve learned myself.”

As the executive director of Aish HaTorah St. Louis, Grunberger decided last year he could use help at the shul he started in 1996. The Orthodox congregation prides itself on an outreach program that opens its doors to the Jewish community. With Grunberger working in Chesterfield most days, he wanted his son-in-law to be available at the synagogue.

“I’m here not to take over but to help it run and to help make it a success,” said Yudin. “There’s an old Yiddish saying, ‘You can’t dance at two weddings at the same time,’ so I dance for him at this wedding.”

Grunberger arranged modest funding from an out-of-town source to cover Yudin’s salary the first year and he approached the congregation’s board with his idea. “I said, ‘try it out, no obligation. If you don’t like it, don’t hire him. I’m OK with that. Let him earn his own right in the year — and that’s what happened,'” Grunberger said.

Yudin received approval from the congregants, who now donate money to pay his salary. “As former president of the shul, people usually have a lot to say both positive and negative about a rabbi and I never had a negative comment about Rabbi Yudin, never,” congregant Mike Rich said. Yudin now holds the title of associate rabbi.

Questions occasionally arise about his age. The-27-year old laughs when retelling the story of one such instance. Upon meeting a 71-year old widower in preparation for his wife’s funeral, the man looked at Yudin and said

“You’re so young.” Yudin’s response was, “Yeah, I’m young but the wisdom of the Torah has been around for millennia.”

He enjoys teaching that wisdom to all Jews throughout the St. Louis area, regardless of affiliation.

Eddie Weinahaus grew up Reform while his wife, Natalie, was Conservative. They began studying with Yudin last summer.

“He makes us feel comfortable, and he is just so willing to work with us and teach us,” Natalie Weinhaus said, adding, “You wouldn’t think he is in his mid 20s. You would think he’s in his 40s. He’s mature and I thank God we found someone to relate to in the community like that.”

Yudin, a self-described news junkie, tries to incorporate anything from current events to Dr. Seuss to a trip to the zoo into his sermons. When he shut down his computer an hour before Yom Kippur last month, he received a message most people regularly pay little attention to. The reminder read, “You are about to close 2 tabs. Are you sure you want to continue?” And below the sentence, an empty box with the option to “Warn me when I attempt to close multiple tabs.” He thought and found inspiration in a seemingly meaningless moment, and told his congregation later that night, “When we make mistakes, what we’re doing is we’re clicking that little button and we’re taking away from our mind our reminders. All we need is five seconds to think about the decisions we make.”

A framed picture with Yudin and his children Yoselle, 4, Goldie, 2 and Blumi, 11 months, sits on his desk at the University City shul, a Father’s Day gift from Sora Liba. When asked about the picture, and more importantly who is in it, he responds, “That’s everything.”

His family grew with the birth of Blumi last November, three weeks after the tragic car accident. Three kids of their own plus four of Sora Liba’s brothers and sisters staying during such trying times made for a crowded house. “My wife is an incredibly strong lady,” Yudin said. “She’s a brilliant woman with a tremendous understanding of people and she was able to step in for her siblings in that time.”

The Grunberger family is slowly on the mend. Dovid recently began taking his first steps and returned to class. Tehilla left to study in Israel in August, 10 months after a brain injury left her on a respirator. Responding to questions about her health via email, she wrote, “I am feeling great, thank God. I view the accident as a difficult stepping stone in my life from which to grow spiritually.”

As for her brother-in-law, Tehilla wrote, “He helped me out through tough situations, always complimenting me and being there for me. Binyomin is not only an inspiring and incredible rabbi, but he is also always ready to help out my family in any way possible.”

A lifetime of knowledge still awaits the young rabbi.

“We don’t control the circumstances. I’ve learned that pretty harshly in the past year,” Yudin said. “Who knows what life will throw me but if I had my druthers of what I want to do, I’d like to be a rabbi who helps lead people, who helps people grow, which is exactly what I am doing now. I’d like to be a better version of myself.”

He’s off to a quick start.