From the YMHA to the JCC: A colorful history, a bright future

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Thanks to the vision of Michael Staenberg, the late Isadore E. Millstone and many others, the Staenberg Family Complex of the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis is now considered one of the finest Jewish Community Centers in North America. But just how did the JCC get started in St. Louis—at its very beginnings?

Meticulous research by the late Ruth Fischlowitz, details the history of the JCC of St. Louis within the pages of her 1964 book, “The ‘Y’ Story: A Chronicle of the Jewish Center Movement in St. Louis.” In the introduction, Fischlowitz notes, “Today, the St. Louis Jewish community stands at the threshold of a new era in its existence. The Jewish Community Centers Association has just dedicated its newest and most impressive facility, the Carlyn H. Wohl Building at Lindbergh and Schuetz roads” (now the completely renovated and refurbished Arts & Education Building of the JCC, named after philanthropists Marvin and Harlene Wool).

The author adds, “But more is being dedicated than a tangible proof of ability to provide financing and programming for such a structure. Rather, the community is celebrating the completion of a project, which had its roots in the hearts and minds of St. Louis’ earliest Jewish residents. It is marking the achievement of years of dreaming and planning on he part of widely separated groups of individuals who have found, in the creation of this Community Center and its predecessors, the most receptive area in which persons of all economic, educational, and social levels can cooperate.”

Fischlowitz defines the early years of the JCC of St. Louis as from 1880-1915. The earliest entity among the groups that later evolved into the unified JCC was the Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Society, which was the predecessor to the St. Louis Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Rabbi Moritz Spitz of B’nai El Congregation, wrote about that organization and a rival unit, in a look-back on St. Louis Jewry he published in 1879. Spitz states, in the Jewish Tribune (later the Jewish Voice), “While the Disraeli Social and Dramatic Club was flourishing . . . The Young Men’s Literary Society, a forerunner of the YMHA was dragging along a very wearisome existence.”


Spitz’s articles in the Jewish Tribune note that in March 1880, “the (national governing) Board of Directors of the YMHA got the application for the (local) association’s charter. The charters states, “That the objects of such organization are scientific, educational and social and the protection of Hebrew interests.” 

The roots of the present JCC’s vibrant cultural arts department can be traced to the formation of “a dramatic and operatic branch of the association,” which was formed during this early period “to promote sociable and good feeling among its members; to provide for them a light and agreeable entertainment and to acquire for them the grace of carriage and confidence of demeanor that arises from frequent representations of character in public.”

Spitz also notes that the YMHA had reached a membership of “200 liberal-minded, well-to-do gentlemen,” and that he suggested formation of a committee to obtain a building to house the YMHA’s various activities. The group had been meeting in rooms of the old “Harmonie Club” on Fourth Street in downtown St. Louis. Fischlowtiz notes that these early years were marked by splits within the YMHA between those who wanted to focus on arts and entertainment and those who wanted the agency to be fully engaged in the absorption of the many immigrants from Eastern Europe who began to flood into the United States—and St. Louis—in the 1880s. This influx would continue until the early 1920s, when the Congress adopted restrictive quotas in the immigration laws.

Spitz and later Rabbi Samuel Sale of Congregation Shaare Emeth and Abe Rosenthal, editor and publisher of The Modern View, a slick Jewish publication that catered to upscale Reform Jewish residents of St. Louis, began to advocate for a stronger YMHA, which was encourage to cooperate with the St. Louis Section of the National Council of Jewish Women. The collaboration between the early, struggling YMHA and the NCJW assured that the “YMHA home (if we get it) will be given over, say, once a week, for the enjoyment of the ladies. One or two occasions monthly, both ladies and gentlemen will meet there.”

The next significant event in the earliest history of the YMHA/JCC was in March 1897, when “the great day had arrived when it could be announced that the Association had rented quarters at 2737 Locust Street and would open its doors in April.” Fischlowitz notes that the acquisition of a permanent home for YMHA/YWHA activities “was to mark the beginning of an upward swing for the Association.” The facility included a ladies’ salon, a chess and pastime parlor and a gymnasium where “an instructor in physical culture” conducted classes.

Space does not permit a detailed history of the decades that followed the earliest origins of the YMHA, which by 1958 had moved from Union and Enright avenues to what is now the Millstone Jewish Community Campus on Lindbergh and Schuetz roads.

Thanks to the vision of a small band of determined early Jewish residents of St. Louis, the foundation was built on which today’s thriving local Jewish Community Center has been built. The YMHA/YWHA had a sometimes troubled but ultimately successful history; the Jewish Community Center currently enjoys a vibrant present and a bright future thanks to the continued vision of its leaders and loyal support of its members.