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St. Louis

St. Louis is the principal city in the state of Missouri, founded in 1764 as a French outpost in the Louisiana Territory. The area became part of the United States under the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. In 1876, the City of St. Louis formally split from St. Louis County, which itself contains numerous incorporated communities. The Jewish community of Greater St. Louis refers to the combined population of the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County. The 2014 St Louis Jewish Community Study conducted by Jewish Policy & Action research (JPAR), found that the Jewish population of greater St. Louis was 61,100, living in 39,200 households. The 2014 United States Census lists the total population in St. Louis, St. Louis County, and Charles County as 1,698,788. It is estimated that the Jewish population of the greater St. Louis area is 3.6% of the total.

Pierre Laclede, a French fur trader, founded St. Louis in 1764. In the 18th century, as in other French territories at the time, no non-Catholics were permitted to settle in St. Louis, a situation which would continue until after the Louisiana Purchase. Jews did make trips during this period in the 1760s from New Orleans and across into the English Illinois country.

According to research by St. Louis Jewish historian Donald I. Makovsky, and follow-up work by historian Dr. Walter Ehrlich, the first Jew definitively known to settle in the city was Joseph Philipson, a Jew of either Polish or German origins, who opened a store in St. Louis in 1807. He had immigrated to Philadelphia around 1800 at the age of 34, with his two brothers; they became involved in merchandising and the lead and fur businesses.

Philipson brought $10,000 worth of goods from Baltimore to St. Louis, where he gradually expanded his enterprises to include ownership of a brewery (later one of the major industries of St. Louis), a distillery, a sawmill, large stockholdings in the city's second bank and substantial real estate. Philipson was active in cultural and community affairs, but there is no hard evidence that he helped start the local Jewish community. Cincinnati, a rival city, had its first Jewish congregation within a few years after the arrival of its first Jew in 1817, while St. Louis had to wait 30 years after Philipson's arrival, for the founding of a fledgling congregation.

Early Jewish Activities

During the late 1830s and early 1840s, St. Louis was on its way to becoming the fourth largest city in the United States by 1900. From 1835 to 1840, the city population jumped from 8,316 to 16,349, including fewer than 100 Jews. This small Jewish community formed numerous institutions between 1837 and 1842. Starting in 1837, High Holy Day minyanim were held, starting with services on the Mississippi River front. In 1840, 33 Jews contributed funds to establish the first Jewish cemetery. United Hebrew Congregation, originally Orthodox, and now Reform, was started officially in 1841 by 12 men from Posen (Prussia), Bohemia, and England. In 1842, the Hebrew Benevolent Society was formed to care for needy Jews.

In 1843–44, various religious practices were initiated by the United Hebrew Congregation. Regular Ashkenazi services in the Polish tradition were conducted in a rented room.

By 1850, when the city's total population was 77,680, about 700 Jews comprised the community. Most were merchants; only two physicians and one lawyer are known to have been among the Jewish community during this period. Factors which limited the growth of the St. Louis Jewish community included the St. Louis Fire of May 17, 1849, a cholera epidemic, and the Gold Rush, which lured many to California.

Civil War Period

Nearly the entire Jewish community in St. Louis supported the North during the Civil War. Isidore Bush (1822–1898), a member of the City Council and Board of Education, and an early congregational leader, strongly supported emancipation. Only one St. Louis Jew was known to be a slaveholder. When General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous antisemitic Order II in 1862, against Jews in Union-occupied territory, Mayer Friede (1821–1888), a jeweler and a B'nai El founder, serving as Missouri's first Jewish representative in the state legislature, denounced the order on the floor of the House. He was one of many influential Jews who persuaded President Lincoln to repudiate the order and the antisemitic sentiments it expressed.

Congregational Growth

A group of United Hebrew members desiring a less traditional ritual observance, founded Congregation Emanu El in 1847, made up largely of German Jews. In 1849, a similar group of Bohemian Jews formed Congregation B'nai B'rith. They merged in 1852 to form B'nai El Congregation. A proposed merger with United Hebrew fell through when B'nai El received a windfall gift of $3,000 for a building from the estate of Jewish philanthropist Judah Touro. Competed in 1855 at Sixth and Cerre Streets, the B'nai El building was the first synagogue structure west of the Mississippi.


The 1860s was a period of continued growth of Reform Jewish congregations and institutions in St. Louis. The St. Louis Temple Association was founded in 1865, made up of dissident members of B'nai El. By 1867–68, the group was functioning as a nascent congregation, which was formally chartered in 1869, as Congregation Shaare Emeth, the first Reform synagogue in St. Louis, founded as such and part of the national movement. Dr. Solomon Sonneschein (1839–1908) was Shaare Emeth's first rabbi, but in 1866, the congregation's board split over his radical religious views, which resulted in his termination. Rabbi Sonneschein's supporters went with him to found Temple Israel. Shaare Emeth and United Hebrew, which became Reform, continued in the 21st century. Other Reform congregations include Temple Emanuel and the Central Reform Congregation.


In the 1870s at least three Orthodox synagogues were formed, of which Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol (1879), now known as U. City Shul, survives. Other Orthodox congregations as of 2016 include Agudas Israel of St. Louis; Bais Abraham Congregation, Bais Menachem-Chabad, Nusach Hari B'nai Zion, Tpheris Israel, Traditional Congregation and Young Israel of St. Louis. B'nai Amoona was founded in 1881 as an Orthodox synagogue but later became Conservative. Kol Rinah also currently serves the Conservative Jewish community of St. Louis.


St. Louis is served by the Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community. There is one local congregation associated with the Jewish Renewal movement, Neve Shalom.

Philanthropic Institutions

In the mid-to-late 19th century, various institutions were created to coordinate fund-raising to serve the entire Jewish community regardless of denomination. These included the Hebrew Benevolent Association (1842), B'nai B'rith Missouri Lodge 22 (1855), which continues to function; and Ebn Ezra Lodge 47, which later merged into the Missouri Lodge. The Hebrew Relief Association was formed in 1871 in the aftermath of the devastating Chicago Fire, which brought many Jewish refugees to St. Louis who were in desperate need of direct relief support. By 1898, various similar organizations merged into the United Jewish Educational and Charitable Associations, which evolved into the present-day Jewish Family and Children's Service. Other groups came together in 1901 to create the Jewish Educational and Charitable Union in order to better coordinate all Jewish philanthropic campaigns. The JECU later changed its name to the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, which continues to serve as the "central address" for all community-wide fund-raising, planning and budgeting for a family of local, national and overseas beneficiary agencies. The Jewish Federation's annual campaign typically raises in excess of $13 million in its annual campaigns and other fun development activities, and has also developed a substantial group of major endowment funds.

Eastern European Immigration

The large waves of Jews from Eastern Europe who came to America's shores from the 1880s through the 1920s, included many who chose St. Louis as their new home. The still-famous 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, formally called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, celebrated modernism and the status of St. Louis as the fourth largest city in the United States. There was considerable work available for the immigrants in building, maintaining, and later dismantling the elaborate infrastructure for the World's Fair, which took place in the city's Forest Park, a facility larger than New York City's Central Park.

In 1880, the St. Louis Jewish community numbered 10,000 in a city of 350,000. The community was solidly "German," part of the larger wave of German immigrants who came to St. Louis after the Revolution of 1848. These largely acculturated and Reform German Jews, often openly expressed distaste and discomfort over their East European co-religionists, but the very institutions the German Jews helped establish – the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Hospital, the Jewish Family Service, etc. helped the East European Jews adjust to life in the New World. Local Jewish historian Walter Ehrlich, author of the two-volume history of the community, Zion in the Valley: The Jewish Community of St. Louis, credits the public school experience of young second-generation Jews at high schools like Soldan and University City High School, for having broken down the barriers between the "German" and "Russian" communities through social contact, dating, and eventual marriage.

Another point of positive contact between the German and Russian communities, which had founded rival country clubs – Westwood for the Germans and Meadowbrook for the Russians – was the Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA), founded locally in 1896. The YMHA, which later evolved into the present-day Jewish Community Center (JCC), was initially alien to the East European Orthodox Jewish community. The 1902 YMHA banquet featured an appetizer of Blue Point Oysters. Later, the JCC and other major Jewish organizations would accommodate the kashrut needs of the traditional Jewish community.

Other communal institutions were established during this period, which served both the "German" and "Russian" Jewish communities, including the Jewish Hospital (1902), now Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The needs of the elderly were served for many years by two separate institutions, the Jewish Orthodox Old Folks Home and the (Reform) Home for Aged and Infirm Israelites, which were later to merge into the Jewish Center for Aged.

World War I Period

The St. Louis Jewish community strongly supported the American war effort during World War I. The local German population, both Jewish and non-Jewish was especially eager to be seen as being pro-American and not in sympathy with Germany and its war aims. Several prominent members of the Jewish community had leadership roles during this period. Louis Aloe, a member of the Board of Freeholders and later of the Board of Aldermen, became acting mayor of St. Louis, when Mayor Henry Kiel fell ill in 1917. Rachel Stix Michael chaired the instruction committee of the Missouri Women's Committee of National Defense, which trained women to fill jobs vacated by men called to military service. Edwin B. Meissner, Sr. (1884–1956), vice president and later president for 19 years of Congregation Shaare Emeth, and president of the St. Louis Car Company, was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Ordinance Reserve in 1918. In addition to railroad and streetcar equipment and cars, his plant produced aircraft, artillery carts and munitions vital to the war effort.

Residential and Occupational Patterns

In 1900, the Jewish population of St. Louis was about 40,000, among the total city population of 575,288. The German segment, now a minority, was English-speaking, upwardly mobile, middle class, Reform in its orientation, and moving west from the city into new suburbs, including University City and Clayton, and in later decades, Ladue, Olivette, Creve Coeur, Chesterfield and throughout the metropolitan region, including St. Charles County. Initially, the Eastern Europeans, Orthodox, and largely Yiddish speaking in the first generation, remained in the immigrant sections of the city.

In 1920, when the total city population was 772,897, some 20,000 Jews had moved into the Central West End of the City and into St. Louis County suburbs in increasing numbers. The 30,000 Eastern Europeans were now moving west into the suburbs. Congregations which had been located in the city, which split from St. Louis County in 1876, began to move to suburban locations, starting with Temple Israel. By the 1970s, beginning with the formation of Central Reform Congregation and its Rabbi Susan Talve, the Jewish community in the city has made a dramatic comeback, although the overwhelming majority of St. Louis Jewry continues to reside in St. Louis County.

Other Local Institutions

The Orthodox and Conservative communities in 1924 established the Vaad Hoeir to oversee kashrut and personal status issues. The Vaad Hoeir was one of the few North American communities to employ a chief rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish Community, starting with Rabbi Hayim Fischel Epstein (1874–1942). He was succeeded by Rabbi Menachem Zvi Eichenstein (1911–1981), who in turn was succeeded by Rabbi Sholom Rivkin (1926-2011), who served from 1981 until his retirement as chief rabbi emeritus in 2005.

Day Schools

The Rabbi H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy, formed in 1945, was the first Jewish day school in St. Louis. In addition, the community is also served by the Saul Mirowitz–Reform Jewish Day School (Reform), Torah Prep School (Orthodox), Yeshivat Kadima High School (Orthodox), Esther Miller Bais Yaakov High School (Orthodox), and the Missouri Torah Institute (Orthodox).

Community Relations

In 1938, following the infamous Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, the local Jewish Community Relations Council was formed, bringing together under one umbrella a current total of 19 Jewish community relations, defense, and communal groups. Among its founding members were the Jewish Federation, B'nai B'rith, and the local chapters of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah, among others.


Chronicled in detail in the book The Struggle for Zion's Rebirth by Zionist leader Moses Joshua Slonim, organized Zionism took root in St. Louis by 1898. The first time the Zionist flag flew over an official building was at the Palace of Nations at the 1904 World's Fair. In 1911, several local Jews, led by Simon Goldman, sponsored a settlement in Palestine near Lake Kinneret, called Poriah. The project fell victim by 1916 to a series of misfortunes, but the village *Poriyyah took form on the site of the ruins of the original St. Louis Zionist enclave.

Over the years, a thriving chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, along with Hadassah and other Zionist groups, including the Pioneer Women (now Na'amat), took root and flourished over the decades. Jewish Federation-sponsored "Missions to Israel" and events sponsored by the local chapters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups have also contributed to strong local Jewish support of the Jewish community in Israel. During the 1940s, there was an active chapter of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, but the overwhelming majority of the local Jewish community is strongly pro-Israel.

Writers and Chroniclers

St. Louis Jewry has produced locally and nationally noted writers, novelists and poets through the decades, including Howard Schwartz, author of numerous books of poetry, stories, fables and a major work on Jewish mythology published in 2005. Schwartz and Barbara Raznick, director of the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library, have also co-edited several editions of The Sagarin Review, First Harvest, and New Harvest, collections of literary contributions, short stories, poems and life stories by St. Louis Jewish writers. Other writers of note include Louis Daniel Brodsky, a noted poet; historian Max I. Dimont (Jews, God and History), Fannie *Hurst , Stanley *Elkin , Harold Brodkey, Howard *Nemerov , poet Michael Castro, Stephen Schwarzchild, A.E. Hotchner, and Glenn Savan. Mystery writer Michael Kahn has also developed a national following, and Ellen Harris has published two acclaimed "true crime" books, including Guarding the Secrets, about a local cell of the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist organization.

Local Jewish historians include, notably, Dr. Walter Ehrlich, author of the definitive two-volume Zion in the Valley: The Jewish Community of St. Louis; Burton I. Boxerman; Murray Darrish, a leading expert on Jewish genealogy and local Jewish history; and Donald I. Makovsky, author of the definitive monograph on Joseph Philipson and his family, the first known Jews from St. Louis.

The back files of the St. Louis Jewish Light (first published in 1947; reorganized in 1963), the local Jewish community weekly newspaper, is also an excellent repository of information about St. Louis Jewry, as is the St. Louis Jewish Archives, located in the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library.


W. Ehrlich, The Struggle for Zion's Rebirth: the Jewish Community of St. Louis, vol. I, 1807–1907; vol. II, The Twentieth Century (1997 and 2002); D.I. Makovsky, The Philipsons: The First Known Jewish Settlers in St. Louis, 1807–1858 (1958); idem, "Origin and Early History of the United Hebrew Congregation of St. Louis, 1841–1859" (unpub. master's degree thesis, Washington University, 1958); M.J. Slonim, The Struggle for Zion's Rebirth: A History of Zionism in St. Louis, serialized in the St. Louis Jewish Light (1972); A. Bondi, Autobiography (1910); B.A. Boxerman, "Reactions of the St. Louis Jewish Community to Anti-Semitism, 1933–45" (unpub. master's degree thesis, St. Louis University, Washington University 1954); idem, "A History of the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis," in: Missouri Historical Society Review (2004); R. Fischlowitz (Marget), The Y Story (history of the Jewish Community Center; 1964); G.A. Tobin, "Jewish Population Movements in St. Louis," in Gateway Heritage Magazine (Spring 1986); Jewish Demographic Study for St. Louis, 1981 and 1995; Guide to Jewish Life, published annually by the St. Louis Jewish Light, since 1988, an annual profile of the local Jewish community; St. Louis Jewish Light back files and issues, 1947–2006.

[Robert A. Cohn (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.