Aish HaTorah’s early roots

I was happy to see your story on the transition of Aish HaTorah St. Louis’ leadership from Rabbi Elazar Grunberger to Rabbi Yosef David in the May 8 edition of the Jewish Light. In my humble opinion, Rabbi Grunberger has done more than anyone in St. Louis over the last 25 years to reach out and educate Jews of all types and stripes who have grown distant from and disinterested in their birthright. The family tree of his accomplishments is sequoia-esque in its size and our community owes a huge debt of gratitude to Rabbi Grunberger for his indefatigable work on behalf of the St. Louis Jewish community and K’lal Yisrael.

While the Light rightly focused on Aish HaTorah’s future, I wanted to point out a couple of factual errors in your story of its past in order to give credit to those who laid the foundation upon which Rabbi Grunberger built his legacy. Aish St. Louis was founded in 1979, six years prior to Rabbi Grunberger’s arrival.

The late Kenneth Spetner, of blessed memory, seized on an opportunity offered by then Chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, Arie Dulzin, to partner with the Sochnut to seed the establishment of Aish HaTorah in St. Louis. This was the first branch of what is today an international organization that operates more than 25 branches on five continents.

The first Rabbis to lead Aish St. Louis were Kalman Packouz and Chaim Willis. Today Rabbi Packouz lives in southern Florida and authors the Shabbat Shalom Fax, a weekly fax that is distributed to more than 11,000 fax machines and 35,000 email addresses. Rabbi Willis is today the Director of Aish HaTorah South Africa. Following Rabbis Packouz and Willis, Rabbi Dov Heller took over and led Aish St. Louis for 3 years.

Today Rabbi Heller is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles and the Director of the Relationship Institute. It was following these three Rabbis and their almost six years of groundbreaking efforts that Rabbi Grunberger arrived in St. Louis from Bnei Brak to take Aish — as they say — to the next level. He took it there and then some.

One last, personal historical note. When Rabbi Grunberger first arrived in 1985, I volunteered to chair the annual fundraising dinner that year. Several weeks before the dinner, I opined to Elazar that having 200 guests in attendance would be a great achievement, given the transition of leadership and other factors at the time. Rabbi Grunberger looked at me like I was the chairperson of the Pessimist’s Club of America. “Two hundred?” he responded. “We’re going to get more than 300 to attend!” I thought that perhaps Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the Dean of Aish HaTorah, had sent the wrong guy. Several weeks later, when the dinner commenced, there was nearly 280 people in attendance.

It was not the 300 that Rabbi Grunberger shot for, but forever taught me that caring for the Jewish people meant dreaming and striving and was not to be limited by earthbound expectations. Rabbi Grunberger has personified that attitude from that first dinner through the thickest and thinnest of times for Aish St. Louis.

He and Aish should continue to go from strength to strength.

Mordechai Simon, University City

Send letters to the editor to Managing Editor Mike Sherwin at [email protected] or by mail at 6 Millstone Campus, Suite 3010, St. Louis, Mo, 63146.