Young Israel celebrates 70 years


Seventy years ago, a group of teenagers met behind a local synagogue every Saturday to teach other kids their ages from the Torah.

Since then, that group of teenagers has grown to about 120 families and 40 singles that make up Young Israel of St. Louis, the only congregation in St. Louis affiliated with the National Council of Young Israel.

Young Israel of St. Louis will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding with a dinner at the Doubletree Hotel at Westport June 3 at 5 p.m.

The dinner will honor, among others, Attorney Stuart Zimbalist, who will receive the Distinguished Service Award for his continued service with the synagogue and the community. Zimbalist was also responsible for leading the rabbi search committee, which chose Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Toronto as its new rabbi. Shulman will also attend the dinner.

Several generations, from the founders to recent members who joined, came together Sunday at the Young Israel synagogue on Delmar Blvd. to discuss what celebrating 70 years means to them.

“We started with a small group of people. They met in a synagogue behind the sanctuary separately,” said member Matilda Zeffren. “Young teenagers banded together to meet every Saturday and every Thursday night. They stayed together all day and we got permission to open up a small prayer group in the attic of a synagogue.”

Matilda’s husband Lester said that while Young Israel started as a separate entity of Orthodox Judaism, the purpose of Young Israel was to bridge the generation gap between adults and children.

“It was a group of young Orthodox men and women who were looking for an opportunity to provide a place to daven (pray) and to meet that was different than the standard or the older congregation, which perhaps were not always sensitive to younger people who are coming in,” Lester said.

The founders started the organization in 1934 or 1935, but it was not until 1937 when the organization’s charter was signed and Young Israel of St. Louis was officially recognized.

In 1957, the St. Louis Chapter of Young Israel found its first permanent home on Groby Road. Up until that year, the group would meet or hold services in members’ basements, the local VFWs and “any other place that offered free rent,” said member Rita Bresner. The organization moved again in 1994 to Delmar Blvd. in hopes of reaching more members as people moved from the city to the county.

Young Israel laid the structure for Jewish higher learning, especially for women, and the organization catered to youngsters teaching them how to participate in services.

As congregation developed over the years, its members changed in terms of broader professions and more education, but throughout those changes, they maintained their faith in Orthodoxy. The only things that did not change were their love of Israel, their love of the Torah and its teachings.

Today, the principles and goals the founders placed in Young Israel of St. Louis live on through new members like Ruthie Asher, who grew up in St. Louis and attended Epstein Hebrew Academy, a school that founders helped create.

“I became friendly with a lot of the kids that went to Young Israel. They always invited me to come every Shabbat afternoon…when I got married, we decided we wanted to be members of Young Israel,” Asher said.

“I think Young Israel is a special community. It’s very intergenerational. I think people within the generations really appreciate each other,” she said.

After 70 years of existence, member Noah Susman said he is not surprised the organization is still around.

“You’d figure if we started as a transition, as we got older, you’d think we would mainstream. What happened is the [Young Israel] congregation mainstreamed. The people, as they grew older, they stayed with the congregation,” he said. “They always had a guarantee that they would give priority to the younger people that came into the congregation to give them the same opportunity that they had and to be attractive to them even though there was no longer a generation gap.”