Celebrating 175 years of faith
By: Carol Enright
Nestled behind a quiet section of Conway Road in Chesterfield lies the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Mississippi.
United Hebrew Congregation is 175 years old, a milestone that Senior Rabbi Brigitte S. Rosenberg called “major.”
“We were the 20th synagogue that was founded in the United States, but only 13 have made it to this 175th anniversary,” she said.
The congregation dates its founding to 1837, when two Jewish immigrants, Abraham Weigel and Nathan Abeles, wanted to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish High Holy Days.
Rosenberg explained that, in Judaism, “you can pray by yourself, but there are certain prayers that we have in our liturgy that have to be done in community.”
“What’s considered a community, minimally, is 10 men,” she said.
This is called a minyan.
Weigel and Abeles formed their minyan by inviting Jewish settlers, as well as Jewish travelers and peddlers, to gather in a rented room in downtown St. Louis to pray – United Hebrew was born.
“It was the only Jewish institution for 10 years in St. Louis, and the members did everything,” said Rosenberg. “They provided all the Jewish services and things that people in the Jewish community needed. So one of the founders was the community mohel who would perform circumcisions. There was a guy trained in ritual slaughter, so he was there to make sure that people got their kosher meat.”
Through the years, the congregation moved its community from St. Louis to its home in Chesterfield in 1989. But perhaps its biggest move was joining the Reform Judaism movement in the early 20th century. This shedding of Orthodox rituals allowed immigrant Jews, adapting to a modern America, more flexibility in practicing their faith.
The Congregation’s history is rich and worthy of retelling, which is why former United Hebrew president, Rick Cornfeld, is leading a group of congregants in researching the synagogue’s history. One story involves Missouri son, Harry Truman.
Rabbi Samuel Thurman, who led the congregation from 1914-1958, was the first rabbi to give an invocation at a presidential inauguration. He did so when Truman was sworn in for his second term in January 1949. Cornfeld said Truman and Thurman were “good friends” who met at the Missouri Masonic Lodge when Truman was the Grand Master and Thurman was a chaplain there.
“One of Harry Truman’s really most outstanding accomplishments, certainly for the Jewish community, is his recognition of the state of Israel,” said Cornfeld. “When Israel was founded in 1948, it was not at all certain that Israel would even be able to become a country, much less survive as a country. Eleven minutes after Israel declared its independence, Harry Truman recognized it as the de facto government in Palestine, which historians say assured Israel’s survival.”
Thurman visited Truman the week before the historic event, urging the president to recognize the Jewish state.
Much has changed in the world since United Hebrew’s founding so long ago – and as the world continues to change United Hebrew will respond with faith.
Judaism, Rosenberg said, is a “dynamic” religion where the past continues to inform the present.
She explained that modern Jews look at the written law, which is the Torah, and the oral law, which are the writings and debates of rabbis throughout the centuries, to “figure out how to look at the world through a Jewish lens.”
In her remarks to the congregation on Rosh Hashanah, Rosenberg speculated that the immigrants who formed that first minyan “would be humbled and awed at the notion that their need to celebrate the New Year with other Jews would one day lead to this vibrant Jewish congregation.”
And in closing she said, “Each of us and our stories make up the lens of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.”
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United Hebrew will continue its 175th anniversary celebration with events throughout the year, including a Shabbat service on Oct. 19 to welcome Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a 175th Anniversary Gala at the Coronado Ballroom on Nov. 18, Purim festivities in February, a “UH in St. Louis History” bus tour in May and a golf tournament and closing picnic in August 2013.