Phyllis Cantor

Lisa Mandel
2011 Unsung Hero Phyllis Cantor in her Creve Coeur home. Photo: Lisa Mandel

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, Special to the Light

Ten years ago this October, Phyllis Cantor was named chair of the Social Action Committee at Congregation B’nai Amoona. The position is a perfect fit. “I am all about tikkun olam, repairing the world,” says Cantor. “I believe we have a moral obligation to make the world better.” 

Dr. Harvey Cantor (no relation to Phyllis) courted her for the position when he was board president. “I was lucky enough to realize that Phyllis is an awesome, dynamic woman,” says Cantor. “One of her biggest successes has been a trend-setting electronics recycling project that now takes place across the nation.” 

That project came about because of Cantor’s willingness to ask for what she wants. “Six years ago, at a spring fair I saw a woman on the back of a pick-up truck collecting electronics equipment. She said she was trying to keep it from ending up in a landfill,” recalls Cantor. “I asked if she would put on a similar drive for B’nai Amoona that November, and I asked the City of Creve Coeur if they would help too.”

The first year, 30,000 pounds of electronic equipment was collected, enough to fill three big trucks. Each year, the drive was more successful. In 2009, Good Will Industries called to say they wanted to be part of the drive. Last year, for two days people brought in computers, phones, television sets, VCRs, DVD players, stereos, audiovisual equipment and other items with cords, motors or batteries. The stuff – weighing 340 tons — filled 34 big trucks. 

People who had no electronics to donate for safe disposal were encouraged to donate cash for Turkey for the Pantry, an organization that provides needy families with turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner. Cantor reports that $5,600 was collected and distributed to nine food pantries to purchase turkeys.

Originally from Bexley, Ohio, Cantor earned a degree in medical dietetics and moved to St. Louis with her husband, who died 16 years ago. “After my husband died, I chose life,” says Cantor. “I know that if you put your foot on the right path, the Almighty will lead you.”

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose, senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona, sings Cantor’s praises. “Phyllis wants to make the world what I think God intended for it to be,” says Rose. “She has an unbelievably big heart and is always championing those in need. I believe Phyllis is the most Jewish Jew I know — wherever there is pain, she feels it personally, existentially, and wants to help.”

Under Cantor’s leadership, the Social Action Committee has collected toys at Christmas for needy children, painted walls and planted flowers for a settlement house in north St. Louis, baked cookies for firefighters and police, held shoe drives  and taken in clothing for people in Kinloch. The committee, which has about a dozen active members, also has worked with the Interfaith Partnership on several programs. Some projects are group efforts; individuals undertake others.  

Current projects include switching to Fair Trade coffee at B’nai Amoona and cultivating a small garden in back of B’nai Amoona’s building. Cantor got the dirt for free — by asking a stranger — and the vegetables grown each summer all go the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. 

What has been Cantor’s favorite social action project to date? 

Some years ago, Cantor asked at Sam’s and at Wal-Mart if she might take bagged salads and rotisserie chickens slated for disposal to local food pantries. In both cases, Cantor was told no. She kept asking, and at the same time she requested that Missouri legislator Jane Cunningham look into the law that prohibited stores from donating food that had not been purchased by its expiration dates. Former Gov. Matt Blunt changed the law so stores could donate the food.

Cantor says the stores still balked, so she called on the local media for help. Video footage that aired showed “the equivalent of a football field of food stacked six stories high” being discarded every day. The companies now donate food to local pantries. 

“That was great,” Cantor says, laughing. “When my kids heard, they said to me, ‘You took on who?’”

Phyllis Cantor

FAMILY:  Widow of the late Dr. Sol Cantor, a doctor, mother of five (one deceased), eight grandchildren

HOME: Creve Coeur

OCCUPATION: She worked at her husband’s medical office “so I would get to see the guy.”

FAVORITE PASTIME: Collecting antiques, baking, watching re-runs of “Law and Order”