A snapshot of St. Louis' Jewish community
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2011 -At Passover Seder dinners in Jewish homes across the world, the youngest child will ask, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
Then, the story is told of that spring night when, according to the Book of Exodus, God's angel "passed over" Jewish first-born sons as the Egyptians' first-born males died in the 10th plague. Moses then led the enslaved Jews across the parted Red Sea to freedom.
This Passover, as St. Louis Jewish grandparents and elders look with loving pride at their young questioners, many will talk about the next generation. Will young American Jews have the desire and support to celebrate their Jewish faith in St. Louis?
"Our numbers in St. Louis are diminishing," said Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, a planning and fund-raising umbrella group. It serves all Jewish denominations, including Jews who are not synagogue members. Lower numbers hurt, he said. In January the federation announced that its annual fund-raising campaign brought in less that its $10 million goal. The total of "just under" $9.95 million was the lowest campaign results in 13 years. For each of the previous three years, the total has diminished.
In response to reduced numbers -- in giving and in members -- the Jewish Federation, which has a $100 million endowment, developed an energetic strategic plan to streamline its resources, cut duplication and "sunset" some programs. For a decade it has urged synagogues with declining membership and high staff and maintenance costs to merge.
The national Jewish birthrate, at about 1.86, is not replacing the living. Jewish immigrants are few. And in St. Louis, people say that some of the best and the brightest Jewish young adults, who were lovingly educated in their faith at local Hebrew schools and day schools, often depart for distant colleges and never return to live here.
That is what both daughters of Roz Lowenhaupt did. Both attended Temple Emmanuel Hebrew School and John Burroughs School before going to college and getting jobs out of town. Now in their 30s, they live in other cities.
"None of my daughters' good friends from high school has returned, none," she said. But, she continued, "This is not just a Jewish thing. Most of those friends are not Jewish."
Young college-educated Americans of most faiths are extending their youthful freedom, hesitant about hurrying into lifelong careers and starting families. American men now marry for the first time at 28.4 on average, two years older than U.S. men's mean marriage age in 1980. Women on average marry for the first time at 26.5, three years older on average now than in 1980. Many wait until a few years after having children to join any houses of worship.
"It's a problem in all religious groups," said Rabbi Mark Shook, who had a wide view as former president of the Interfaith Partnership of St. Louis and senior rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Creve Coeur. He was senior rabbi there for 23 of the congregation's 126 years. Last July, he turned over its leadership to a fourth-generation member, Rabbi Amy Feder.
Joining -- called affiliating -- can be a more challenging hurdle for Jewish young adults than most other religions. They can't just slide into the back pew occasionally. In most synagogues, after the age of 30, a person must pay set fees based on income to attend.
"A decrease in Jews affiliating with synagogues is not a new problem nationally," said Amy L. Sales, assistant director of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "Some synagogues are doing brilliantly reaching out to the next generation" through young adults' interests, not through the normal "pay-membership-come-three-times-a-year."
The Jewish Federation has no current count of St. Louis Jews. The U.S. Census does not ask about religion. But according to several polls, about 1 percent of Missourians are Jewish, and about 1.7 percent of the U.S. population identify as Jewish.
In 1995, a study was done by then-Washington University professor Gary Tobin. It found that 60,000 people identified as "in the St. Louis Jewish community," which included 5,400 people of other faiths, or no faith, who live in households with a Jewish parent or spouse.
"They should be counted because they are part of the Jewish community," said Bob Millstone, chair of the federation's capital campaign. "My wife is a Catholic, but she goes to many Jewish events. And she financially supports the community."
Rosenberg said the federation doesn't need another expensive study to count Jews.
"St. Louis still probably has the largest Reform community in the world," said United Hebrew's Senior Rabbi Howard Kaplansky. Reform is one of Judaism's four major streams, or denominations, along with Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox.
"When I first came to United Hebrew in 1971 we had confirmation classes of 187; today 40 is a large class," Kaplansky said. Reform congregations confirm youth sometime between the ages of 15 and 18. United Hebrew Congregation is the oldest synagogue west of the Mississippi, founded in 1836 as an Orthodox congregation on what is now the Gateway Arch grounds. Many moves later, it is in Chesterfield.
Nationally between 20 to 25 percent of adult Jews are synagogue members, said Sales, of Brandeis. Many middle-age parents drop their affiliations a few years after their youngest child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah at 13, Sales said. "They say why are we paying all this money to go three times a year."
Membership used to be considered for life. Quality programs cost money, Millstone said. He asked, Whom do they expect to pay?
"Our memberships are free until the age of 30," said Kaplansky. "After that they can't have all the privileges without the cost. We could not sustain a congregation. There would be no building, no clergy, and no programs. Everyone wants all to be excellent."
Or Not Affiliated
But being Jewish goes beyond affiliation. Jews prefer to count all Jews, including non-observant "secular" Jews who are not synagogue members, according to Millstone. To many, being Jewish is primarily an ethnic identity rather than a belief.
From his first work counting the St. Louis Jewish community for the federation's 1995 survey, the late Gary Tobin was convinced that Americans who identify themselves as Jewish are "way undercounted."
"Especially in the West, especially those under 40 who are children of mixed marriages," said his widow, Diane Kauffmann Tobin, in an interview from her office at the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. She has been its director since his death nearly two years ago.
Like her husband, she wants Jews to focus not so much on who left the faith, but who want to be welcomed as Jews and to embrace the members of other faiths in mixed marriages. The Tobins adopted an African-American baby whom they raised in their faith. They began to meet Jews of color. The couple's circle of observant Jewish friends spans a rainbow of African-Americans, Asians and Latinos.
"With intermarriage rates among Jews now 60 to 75 percent you can't just look up people in the phone book with Jewish sounding names. They may not have had a Jewish name for two generations," she said.
The 1990 Jewish-funded National Jewish Population Survey startled many with the report that 52 percent of Jews were married to non-Jews. Now 21 years after that finding, Tobin's research and that of others say Jewish intermarriage is at least 60 percent and may well be 75 percent. Children of Jews married to non-Jews are even less likely to marry Jews. About 9 percent of second generation children of mixed marriages raise their children as Jews, some research shows.
The federation's Rosenberg has one solid number.
In the two years since the Jewish Community Center added the Staenberg Family Complex, a state-of-the art gym, lecture and theater complex at its Creve Coeur campus, that facility's JCC membership is up 74.3 percent, he said. Combined with its decade-old Chesterfield Jewish Community Center the two Jewish Community centers have 15,100 paid members, said federation spokeswoman Debbie Warshaski. J membership is open to all but most are Jewish, she said.
Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist who has long covered religion.