Julie Frankel has become indispensable volunteer to many organizations

Retired educator Julie Frankel embraced giving back, becoming indispensable volunteer to many.

Julie+Frankel.Photo+by+Bill+Motchan

Julie Frankel.
Photo by Bill Motchan

Eric Berger, Special To The Jewish Light

After four decades as a teacher and guidance counselor, Julie Frankel retired in 2014. Like many people, she was unsure what she would do next.

“I felt like I had lost my identity,” said Frankel, who spent 20 years as a guidance counselor in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. Frankel, colleagues and students “were a family, and it was just so much of who I was.”

Then she received a phone call asking her to serve as co-chair of the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

The St. Louis Jewish Community Center, which organizes the festival, “saved me,” Frankel said. 

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The J leaders certainly are grateful for Frankel’s efforts, too. She not only spent three years as co-chair of the festival and then helped organize its 40th anniversary, she also has volunteered with the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival — another J event — and with other Jewish organizations. 

In short, when Frankel applies her skills to an event, “you just know it’s going to be successful,” said Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the J. 

Frankel saw what giving back meant at a young age. She was born in Portsmouth, Va., to Israeli parents whose families remained in the Jewish state.

“Israel was their lives,” she said.

And the families there were struggling financially. Frankel’s mom would regularly send them packages filled with clothes and canned goods. When Frankel got a new dress, she could never alter it because eventually, it would end up in Israel.

“I had to make sure that the next person taller than me could wear it,” Frankel said.

In Portsmouth, the Conservative synagogue played a central role in the family’s life.

“Every dance, every activity, everything, was always based around the synagogue,” Frankel said.

She met her husband, Lenny, while he served in the Navy in Norfolk, Va. The couple married and then moved to St. Louis, where Lenny’s family lived.

Frankel taught elementary school for a decade in the Ritenour School District and then took a 10-year break after having her son, Aaron. She then spent eight years at Epstein Hebrew Academy as a fourth-grade teacher before joining the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

She was the only Jewish educator in her building and walked into a sixth-grade classroom at Commons Lane Elementary School, where they were reading “Number the Stars,” a children’s book about the efforts of the Danish resistance to smuggle Jews out of the country during World War II. 

“I said to myself, they don’t know why they are reading this,” Frankel said. “Why are these families trying to save these people?”

She felt the students needed to learn more about the Holocaust to understand the significance of the resistance members’ bravery, so she developed curriculum for them. The unit culminated with a visit to what is now the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum.

Before the field trip, Frankel would borrow DVDs and other resources from the museum to educate her students, said Andrew Goldfeder, who spent almost a decade as manager of programs and logistics at the museum.

“What initially struck me about Julie was how much time and preparation she put into teaching her students about the Holocaust,” said Goldfeder, who is now executive director of Temple Emanuel. 

Students would often say afterward that one of the best parts of sixth grade was the visit to the museum, Frankel said.

“When you got feedback such as that, it made you feel like it was worthwhile,” she added.

After retiring, Frankel continued to teach about the Holocaust in the Ferguson-Florissant district. She also started to volunteer as a docent at the museum.

“She could work with younger students … in a very age-appropriate, developmental manner that was right for the students,” Goldfeder said. As far as knowledge, “she’s able to hold an audience and just always so pleasant to work with.”

Frankel’s involvement with the J started with Wittels, who was her neighbor in Olivette and a fellow Congregation B’nai Amoona member.

“I just threw it out there: You know, we’re always looking for talented people to help with the J,” Wittels recalled telling Frankel. 

As co-chair of the book festival, Frankel played a central role in choosing the authors, planning the talks, finding sponsors and promoting the events. Frankel credits her success to friends and family members who donated to the festival.

That’s a “very important part of all the charity work or community work that I do. You rely on your friends,” she said.

As a volunteer with the film festival, Frankel screens all the films organizers are considering each year. That’s often about 60 movies. She and her fellow screener narrow it down to about 25, which they then give to a committee that picks about 13.

“It’s just another thing I can do to give back to the center because I really have strong feelings for all the good things that they do for the community, all the services they provide for the youth, for the elderly,” said Frankel, who also volunteers at B’nai Amoona.

She answers the synagogue phone on Tuesdays; helps prepare food for Shabbat on Fridays; and serves on the board of the congregation’s sisterhood.  

She said she fills those various roles because it’s important that “the synagogue continues to function and continues to be a central part of people’s lives like it was for me growing up.”

She also packages food for the Meals on Wheels program at Crown Center, which delivers meals to seniors in surrounding neighborhoods. 

Despite juggling so many responsibilities, Frankel is successful because “she’s bright, and I think she has a really good read on the community, and she’s a hard worker,” Wittels said. 

As to the cause that gave her new purpose after she retired, Frankel continues to volunteer with the book festival, even though she no longer chairs the event. 

“She doesn’t do it for the recognition,” Wittels said. “She really loves it because she loves the program, and it’s kind of her gift to the community.”