Young love unified St. Louis Jewish community

Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Robert A. Cohn

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

In 1967, author Stephen Birmingham launched his bestselling trilogy on the three major waves of Jewish immigration to the United States — German Reform Jews, (“Our Crowd”) Sephardic Jews (“The Grandees”) and Eastern European Jews (“ The Rest of Us”). Birmingham details how relations among the different waves of Jewish Americans were not always harmonious and, in fact,  were often hostile. What Birmingham describes in his discussion of the antagonism between the “German” and “Russian” Jews of Greater New York also played itself out in most major American cities, including St. Louis.

Many of the German and mostly Reform Jews and their ancestors came to these shores from Germany, France, Bohemia and Alsace in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions in central Europe. Among these were the great banking and industrial families, with names including Loeb, Lehman, Straus, Goldman, Sachas and Guggenheim. These were termed “Our Crowd” Jews.

From 1880 to the early 1920s, a new group of Jews – in a wave referred to as “Downtown Jews” – from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, the Balkan states and elsewhere in Eastern Europe flooded to America to escape the pogroms of czarist Russia and parallel anti-Semitism in other nations in the region.

With the entry of the Downtown Jews, tensions developed with the Our Crowd Jews, who were elite, wealthy and highly assimilated. The German Jews were in many cases embarrassed by their poorer, generally Orthodox, East European co-religionists.

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In St. Louis, Reform Jews founded their own temples and synagogues, along with the major Jewish institutions set up during the 19th and early 20th centuries: the Jewish Hospital, the Jewish Federation and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, which later became the Jewish Community Center. The East European Jews founded their own Orthodox and later Conservative synagogues and the Vaad Hoeir (City Council), the central administrative body to ensure compliance with the kosher Jewish dietary laws and other matters of ritual purity.

The late St. Louis Jewish historian Walter Ehrlich, in Volume II of “Zion in the Valley: The Jewish Community of St. Louis,” devotes extensive space to a discussion of what he calls the breach between the two Jewish communities in a detailed chapter headed “Bridging the Chasm.” Ehrlich describes not only the deep and often bitter division between the two major segments of the local Jewish community, but also how the split was eventually largely, but not completely, healed.

“As early as the 1880s, when East European immigration began in earnest, reputable individuals on both sides – rabbis and lay leaders – publicly expressed feelings that seemed to nurture” the belief that the breach between the two groups was “insurmountable,” Ehrlich writes. “Yet the chasm was bridged, and for what a long time had been two virtually adversarial German/Reform and eastern European/Orthodox communities, evolved by the mid-1920s into an American Jewish community. 

Differences remained, but they were far less fractious than those which earlier had transformed the entire community.”

One symptom of the split was evident by the creation of two nursing homes to care for the Jewish elderly in St. Louis. In 1885, the early German Jewish Reform community established a facility with the remarkably quaint name of the Home for Aged and Infirm Israelites. In 1907, to accommodate Jewish elderly from East European origins, the Jewish Orthodox Old Folks Home was established. 

In 1940, after the breach between the two communities had largely healed, the two facilities were merged into what became known as the Jewish Center for Aged, which in recent years evolved into the privately owned and operated Cedars of Town & Country. Even two separate Jewish country clubs were created: Westwood, which served mostly the German/Reform community, and Meadowbrook, which was more welcoming to those of East European origins.

Both Birmingham and Ehrlich emphasize that while at first the wealthy German Reform Jews disdained the Russian Orthodox Jews as being “backward” and made up of “mendicants” and “schnorrers,” they were nonetheless eager to help the Jewish immigrants successfully integrate into their respective general communities. 

“German Jewish businessmen employed many of those immigrants, usually at the bottom of the employee ladder,” Ehrlich writes. “And just as had been true of their German Jewish forebears, many of those eastern European immigrants had what it took to climb the ladder of success.”

Gradually and steadily in St. Louis as in New York and other major American cities, the two major groups of American Jews began to blend together into a cohesive and increasingly united Jewish community. Ehrlich gives a large amount of the credit for this unification process to the fact that large numbers of Jewish students from both communities began to attend Soldan High School and began to socialize, date and intermarry.

To be sure, while there were parental objections to “mixing” with the “other” Jews, the differences became less and less visible or relevant as East European Jews began to become more successful in business and the professions, and their children began to date and marry Jews from German origins.

In 1909, when the new Soldan High School opened, Jews from both communities began to attend classes together. Ehrlich writes that “for many it was the first time they associated  with those ‘other’ Jews, although they had heard a lot about them from jaundiced and prejudiced parents.”

When the Jewish young men and women at Soldan began to sit side by side in the same classrooms and participate together in extracurricular and other social activities, those growing young men and women became very much aware of one another.

The normal “young people with developing bodies and hormones” were able to overcome the prejudices of their parents. What occurred at Soldan led to a dramatic and extraordinary realignment within the Jewish community that was perceptible within just one generation. 

The intermarriage between the two groups played perhaps the major role in St. Louis in making the split between the two segments of the Jewish community a thing of the past.

‘Cohnipedia’ is the feature by Editor-in-Chief Emeritus  Robert A. Cohn, chronicling St. Louis’ Jewish  history. Visit Cohnipedia online at  stljewishlight.com/cohn