The History of the Young Israel of St. Louis
by Shelly Wolf
From Viewpoint Magazine, Spring 2006
The Young Israel of St. Louis, Missouri has been a revered constant in the Orthodoxy community for over 60 years and stands as a testament to the drive and devotion of its founders and vigor of its present membership. Throughout its history, the shul has played a vital part in the religious life of the entire city, contributing energy, funding and time to the larger Jewish community. When speaking of St. Louis as home, many are referring to the Young Israel of St. Louis.
Young Israel of St. Louis was started just before the beginning of World War II, by a cadre of committed young people. The group davened and started youth groups and an assortment of fundraising activities. As the shul developed, others joined them; young women, single and married, played an important role in developing the character of the organization. In the early 1940's, as many of the young men left to fight in the war, the minyan itself was suspended, but the organization remained vibrant. Social and fundraising efforts kept the fledgling operation afloat. Matilda Zeffren, a member of that dedicated founding group remembers fondly the galvanizing nature of those activities and the work it took to make them happen. With the return of the men after World War II, the membership grew and affiliation with the National Council of Young Israel strengthened the group. Soon the shul became a hub for observant families, attracting many couples who had grown up in Young Israel synagogues in other communities. The services were characterized by singing and an intelligent, challenging drasha. Some, drawn in by the shul's welcome and tune-filled services, stayed and set down roots.
The shul's first official rabbi was Rabbi Gerald Jacobs. He was followed by Rabbi Pelberg and Rabbi Yitzchok Abramson. After several moves that included a stint in the attic of another Orthodox shul as well as a room above a delicatessen, the group built its own permanent facility on Groby Road in University City. In 1969, Rabbi Simcha Krauss was hired as the new rabbi, and the shul developed further as a well educated, deeply committed group of people. Young Israel welcomed newcomers with warmth and an opportunity to learn and grow religiously. The women's group, or Women's Division, sponsored a steady stream of events: picnics, dinners and lectures. People worked hard making long-lasting friendships amid backed-up sinks and broken Mixmasters in the kitchen. The constants throughout were always the friendships, the programs and the learning.
In the 1980's the shul underwent a major change when Rabbi Krauss left for the Young Israel of Hillcrest, NY and Rabbi Jeffery Bienenfeld assumed the leadership. St. Louis has always had a large number of Orthodox shuls, but Young Israel represented a spirit of energy and innovation. Always clear in its commitment to Torah observance among its leaders and membership, it also welcomed all Jews and made both Sephardi and Ashkenaz, black hat and kipah s'rugah feel comfortable. Under Rabbi Bienenfeld's tutelage, the shul broadened its learning opportunities. It attracted a number of newly observant families and weekly classes increased for both men and women.
In the early 1990's with the change in the neighborhood and an influx of new families, the leadership of the shul recognized the need for a new location that would better suit the burgeoning membership. This endeavor sparked an outpouring of support and translated into a renewed zeal and enthusiasm for the shul. The entire community turned out for the parade that brought the sifrei Torah into the new building, fittingly, on erev Shavuos/Shavuot, 1994.
Young Israel has always tried to be responsive the needs of its members. In the new building, Monday nights have featured a newly formed Midrasha for women with further learning opportunities, both practical and philosophical. Over the years there has been an increase in the number of classes, scholar-in- residence weekends, and Shabbat groups for the children. Classes are held during the day and in the evening to accommodate the schedules of the members. In 2001, a hashkama minyan on Shabbos/Shabbat started and regularly draws a crowd of early risers. In a recent effort to attract new members, a monthly Friday night family minyan began that features Carlebach nigunim, divrei Torah, and treats for the children.
The shul responds to the needs of all Jews. Young Israel has repeatedly held the record in St. Louis for purchasing the greatest number of Israel Bonds. Chesed abounds for anyone in need, with visits and meals for those who are ill, rides to the doctor or trips to the grocery store. Whatever the need, Young Israel responds, whether collecting toys for the local Jewish Federation toy drive or packing supplies for our local Jewish Food Pantry or raising money for Katrina victims.
In 2003, in a move to develop a greater attachment to Israel and to spark new interest in learning, a Torah MiTzion Kollel was welcomed to the Young Israel community. Now, in addition to the Gemarah, Navi and Chumash classes that Rabbi Bienenfeld teaches and the variety of shiurim offered by other members of the shul, Torah MiTzion offers children's programming, groups on Sunday morning combining learning and crafts, adult classes in philosophy and halacha and a multi-level ulpan for both adults and children.
The Young Israel of St. Louis is a place of many generations of people, from those who were here at its beginnings before World War II, to the newly married who arrived just a few months ago. All are welcome. Young Israel seeks to make them part of the adventure of Torah growth, love for Israel and community commitment that has flourished here in the friendly, gentle-paced Midwest.