Lester Zeffren, 84; first St. Louis oncologist, co-founder of Young Israel

Dr. Lester Zeffren

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus

Dr. Lester Zeffren, the first medical oncologist in the St. Louis area and a co-founder and past president of Young Israel synagogue, died Thursday, Dec. 19.  Dr. Zeffren died of natural causes, his son, Dr. Jacob Zeffren said. He was 84, and a longtime resident University City.

Joel Lester Zeffren was born in St. Louis on Jan. 12, 1929, the son of Israel and Jean Funk Zeffren.  He attended the first two years of high school at the Yeshivah Tora Vod Aath in New York City, and returned to St. Louis to attend Soldan High School from which he graduated in the late 1940s.  He did his undergraduate work at St. Louis University and because of his excellent academic record, he was admitted to St. Louis University Medical School even before he completed  his undergraduate studies.  He earned his medical degree from the university in 1952 and began his long practice in St. Louis.

Dr. Zeffren was the first medical oncologist in St. Louis, and was in practice for over 50 years.  He was the first chief of oncology at St. Louis University Medical Center.  He was on the private attending staff at Jewish Hospital (now Barnes-Jewish) and Missouri Baptist Medical Center for decades.  He was a former president of the St. Louis Society for Medical Oncology and a former president of the medical staff at St. Louis University Medical Center.

Dr. Zeffren was renowned for the compassionate care he provided for all of his patients, and was beloved and admired by his colleagues in medicine, nurses and staff.  Carl Lyss, a fellow physician, was one of the many friends and associates of Dr. Zeffren who attended his funeral on Friday, said,  “He was not only the first medical oncologist in St. Louis, but he contributed greatly to our Jewish community and who also was a lovely human being.”

Dr. Zeffren was widely known for being available to all of his patients at all hours of the night.  He had a warm and engaging personality, a deep intellect and a strong devotion to his synagogue, Young Israel, of which he was a co-founder, life member and a past president, and was a tireless advocate for Jewish education in St. Louis.  Jacob Zeffren fondly recalled being present when Dr. Zeffren had “deep intellectual discussions” with a cousin, Alan Zeffren, who now resides in Israel.

Dr. Zeffren and his late wife Matilda were honored by Young Israel at a gala dinner on Nov. 5, 1983, which was held at the Airport Marriott Hotel. At the dinner, Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld, then rabbi of Young Israel, spoke enthusiastically of the Zeffrens’ commitment not only to Young Israel but to the entire St. Louis Jewish community.  “The sterling virtue of Abraham and Sarah, chesed (kindness) distinguishes the life of Lester and Matilda Zeffren.  It is the mark of their greatness.”

In accepting the award, a Yossi Stern watercolor, Dr. Zeffren said he did so “in honor of my wife, who has been an example to me and to our children and who always encouraged me to walk the straight path.”  Over 200 people attended the event.

In addition to his leadership positions at Young Israel, Dr. Zeffren was a former president of the St. Louis Rabbinical College, a former board member of the Central Agency for Jewish Education, the Vaad Hoeir and of the H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy.  He was also an active supporter of Torah Prep School, the Esther Miller Bais Yakov and Block Yeshiva High School, as well as the St. Louis Kollel.

Funeral services were held Friday, Dec. 20, at the Berger Memorial Chapel, where Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel and Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt of Agudas Israel officiated.  Burial was at the Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery on Ladue Road.

Survivors include three sons, Dr. Jacob “Yak” Zeffren, of Teaneck, N.J., Dr. Barry “Dov” (Tziona)  Zeffren and David (Mira) Zeffren of Los Angeles.  His fourth son was the late Rabbi Gershon “Jonathan” (Donna) Zeffren.  He had 19 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. He also is survived by a brother, Rabbi Burton Zeffren, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Contributions are preferred to Young Israel of St. Louis, H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy, Agudas Israel, Torah Prep, Esther Miller Bais Yaakov or Block Yeshiva High School.