Unwise Vote Derails Good B’nai El Deal

Congregation B’nai El

Jewish Light Editorial

It is highly regrettable that an apparently good deal for the future of the former B’nai El synagogue property and its interested potential buyer, the well-regarded Miriam School, has been derailed by a 3-2 vote of board members in the tiny village of Westwood. We hope that the rejection is only a temporary setback and that the deal can be put back on track.

The old B’nai El building at 11411 N. Forty Drive sits astride the boundary of two municipalities: Westwood, whose trustees voted June 4 to reject the proposed sale; and Frontenac, whose City Council had already approved the deal

According to reporting by Eric Berger of the Jewish Light, the decision by Westwood “at least stalls, but could kill, Congregation Shaare Emeth’s proposed sale of the property to the Miriam Foundation, which operates the school and which has Jewish roots.” Shaare Emeth owns the B’nai El property. 

Andrew Thorp, executive director of the Miriam Foundation, told the Light:  

“I think the community is super disappointed by this. We think we would have made a great neighbor and certainly a great community asset and ultimately a great fit for us in terms of operating a school there.”

Miriam Foundation (https://www.miriamstl.org) has an excellent record of providing education for children with a variety of special needs. The school was originally founded by members of the St. Louis Jewish community and has been highly regarded since its inception more than 100 years ago.

In recent decades, synagogues and temples have moved from one location to new venues, and often their former buildings have become community institutions. For example, Shaare Emeth’s University City location at Trinity Avenue and Delmar Boulevard became the 560 Music Building, which is owned by Washington University, while the nearby old B’nai Amoona building in University City became COCA. And the United Hebrew synagogue on Skinker Boulevard is the archive and research center for the Missouri History Museum.

None of the members of the Westwood board gave reasons for their June 4 vote; some declined to comment, and others did not respond to requests by the Jewish Light. 

After an April meeting on the proposal, Fred Berger (not related to Eric Berger), chairman of the trustees, said the owners of the B’nai El property had violated its residential zoning by leasing out parts of the building to a number of different schools.  Since 1989, the building has been used by schools for Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran and deaf students. 

A neighbor who has lived next to the B’nai El property for about five years told the Jewish Light that he likes the Miriam proposal. He and his wife feel Miriam has a great reputation, does good work and that the nature of the school is such that it wouldn’t mean after-hours or evening activities, which could be burdensome to the neighborhood.

Mike Lefton, president of Shaare Emeth, which has owned the property since 2016, said he thought trustees rejected the proposal because they want the site to be used for homes.  But after a developer reached an agreement to purchase the property in 2017, Westwood did not approve a zoning change that would have allowed the developer to build homes on lots smaller than one acre.

Meanwhile, as this controversy remains unresolved, Miriam is looking at other locations for its school, which operates in the Parkway United Church of Christ in Town and Country. Among sites under consideration is the H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy on N. Warson Rd.  

It is our hope that a satisfying, happy solution can be reached for the future of the B’nai El building so there is a “win-win” for everyone concerned, including the community as a whole.