Dr. Terry Weiss: Devoting retirement to helping those who need it

William Motchan
Students at Monroe Elementary School in St. Louis city help Dr. Terry Weiss unload his weekly delivery of food from Operation Food Search. Photo: Bill Motchan


About a month after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Dr. Terry Weiss attended Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Temple Israel and heard a rabbi there speak about the urgency of taking action amid chaos to spur positive change in society. 

“Jews blow the shofar to draw the attention of the community to something important that is going on around them,” Weiss, a retired rheumatologist, recalls Rabbi Amy Feder saying.

While Weiss said he was moved by the sermon, he felt that he did not hear the horn blowing loud enough from other people in the Jewish community. He thought about the oppression that Jews and African Americans have both faced throughout history.

“If there is anyone that should not only be sympathetic but empathetic, it ought to be us,” Weiss said.

Frustrated by perceived inaction and a lack of impact through volunteer efforts, Weiss developed the idea to produce a play an actress had told him about called “Race.” It is an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s bestselling book of the same name that explored how people in America view race. 

That idea led to Weiss co-founding the Civic Arts Company, a nonprofit that uses the arts and education to tackle social injustice. The effort is just one example of how Weiss looks for new, hopefully more effective ways to better the lives of marginalized people in St. Louis. 

 “Terry is involved in so many different aspects of the Jewish community and the St. Louis arts community that I am continually surprised when I hear his name as someone who founded an organization or who is a leader in this or that said Feder. I could not even begin to tell you all of the things in which he is involved.”

Weiss, 74, retired from medicine about a decade ago. He said his approach to retirement was that he wanted to “abide by two principles: I was going to find enough to keep me busy, all the time, every day … and no matter what I was doing, if I didn’t enjoy it, I wasn’t going to do it.”

In order to bring “Race” to audiences, Weiss had to form an organization, raise money, and recruit board members, a director and actors, among other details. Then he had to find an audience. He wanted to perform the play for students, but finding schools that were willing to host it was difficult, he said.

“If you think getting a program like this into a school, to talk about racism, is easy, it’s like calling up and saying, ‘Guess what? I got a sex education class for your seventh-graders,’ ” Weiss said. “You approach any school, and what do they say? First of all, there is too much on their plate. They are underpaid and underappreciated, and not only that but you’re bringing a hot-button topic into their school.”

Still, Weiss has managed to persuade Ladue Horton Watkins High School, University City High School and the College School, among others, to host the play. The company has also performed at the Missouri History Museum, BJC Healthcare and Webster University. 

At the performances, Weiss is typically the person who explains how Civic Arts started and its mission.

“When he does that, I think people really listen, and then after the play is over, several people have come up to him and said, ‘When can we bring this to our organization?’ And a lot of that is because of how Terry presents it,” said Nada Vaughn, artistic director for Civic Arts. “I have been very impressed with his dedication.”

In addition to his theater work, Weiss has been one of the leaders of Temple Israel’s efforts to help students, teachers and parents at Monroe Elementary, a St. Louis public school where all students live below the poverty line.

In 2015, Weiss, Feder and Rabbi Michael Alper met with the Monroe principal about the school’s greatest needs, which included improving literacy among students. Weiss was aware of research showing that if students are not reading at grade level by third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of high school. He recommended that Temple Israel start a mentorship program in which congregants visit the school each week and tutor students. 

Feder said that when Weiss brought up the research at a Temple Israel meeting, “we all just sort of looked at him and were like, ‘How does he know this?’ But it was great because it really convinced us as a community that we could make a tremendous impact with the skill sets and passion we have in our congregation.”

Weiss each week also visits Operation Food Search, a food bank, and delivers food for 85 Monroe students to try and ensure that they have enough to eat over the weekend.

While Weiss has been a steady volunteer at Monroe, he is quick to share credit. When he created the outline of needs at the school, he told Temple Israel leaders that he could be a volunteer but was too busy to lead the mentorship effort. 

“Susan Goldberg (a 2016 Unsung Hero) does that, and she has been dynamite,” said Weiss, who also serves as an ambassador and ambassador trainer for Alive and Well Communities, a nonprofit through which volunteers such as Weiss meet with groups around St. Louis to educate people about the harmful health effects of stress and traumatic experiences. 

Weiss “just seems to have his ear to the pulse of this city,” Feder said. 

“There’s that Yiddish saying, ‘You can’t dance with one tush at two weddings,’ and I feel like I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know how he possibly has the time.”

Terry Weiss 

Age: 74

Family: Married to Phyllis Weiss, father of three children and five grandchildren

Home: Central West End

Fun Fact: He performed in theater at Washington University with Harold Ramis, who co-wrote “Animal House.” “I know every character in there; those are real people,” Weiss said.