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How One Small, Kind Act Resulted In Hundreds Of Thanksgiving Dinners for Needy St. Louisans

Congregation Temple Israel
Voluneeters prepare pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving dinner at Congregation Temple Israel.

Congregation Temple Israel is hosting its annual Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday. For more than three decades, the synagogue has served Thanksgiving dinner to those in need.

The tradition stems from an act of kindness. Ernest Wolf, a non-Jewish German national, was a student at Washington University in 1935 when he received a letter from the German military to report for duty. Wolf didn’t want to return to Germany, because the Nazi Party was rising to promenience.

Wolf planned to seek asylum in Mexico, but he didn’t have the money to get there. 

Temple Israel Senior Rabbi Amy Feder said Wolf went door to door, up and down Kingshighway, asking different faith groups for financial help. But he was turned away. That was, until he made a stop at Congregation Temple Israel. The head rabbi at the time, Ferdinand M. Isserman, gave him $300.

“That was what he needed to be able to get to Mexico to avoid having to serve with Nazis,” Feder said.

Wolf made it to Mexico and stayed throughout the war. In 1986, Wolf returned the favor.

“The congregation received a $50,000 check in the mail and a note from him just asking the temple to do good things with the money,” Feder said. “Rabbi Isserman was long gone, and so the rabbi at that time decided to use that money and start a Thanksgiving dinner for people in need.”

Feder said the story of Wolf and his generosity is not known to many people in the community. 

In the past, the dinner has served more than 400 people. This year, it will serve roughly 500. Each year, people who are referred to Congregation Temple Israel through social service agencies receive celebrity treatment for a night. Their food is served on fine china as live music from the Ladue Strolling Strings plays in the background. Feder said it takes roughly 250 volunteers every year to pull this off.

In addition, guests will be able to pick out a free item from their Mitzvah Market.

“People walk away with either a coat or a hat and gloves or something to make sure that as the season gets colder, that they’re walking away not just feeling like their bellies are full, but also that they will be just a little more protected in the winter weather,” Feder said.

This year's will be the 33rd Thanksgiving dinner that Congregation Temple Israel has hosted. 

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

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