Orthodox Jews Here Cherish Faith's Discipline, Tradition

Article excerpt

Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld rejoices when he realizes that a simple shout on certain streets in University City gathers a minyan, 10 men required for Jewish prayer.

That is because University City serves as the religious hub of the Orthodox Jewish community in the St. Louis area.

About 1,000 families belong to a half-dozen Orthodox synagogues scattered along Delmar Boulevard between the Loop and Interstate 170.

In St. Louis and cities elsewhere in the United States, Orthodox Judaism, the most observant branch of Judaism, is flourishing.

"Orthodox synagogues and institutions are growing and expanding at an unprecedented rate," said Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, a leader of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations based in New York City.

Here, the vitality of the Orthodox community rises as Young Israel, the congregation Bienenfeld leads, constructs a $1.2 million synagogue in University City.

"We are building a community on Delmar that will become a visible and forceful presence," said Douglas "Dugie" Baron, congregation president.

Only about 5,200 of the 53,500 Jews who live here are Orthodox. Even so, they support seven synagogues, several preschools, two elementary schools, a high school, college, rabbinical college, study center, book and gift stores, plus a bakery, butchers, restaurants, caterers and banquet facilities, all certified kosher.

Being an Orthodox Jew means more than attending prayer services in Hebrew, keeping a kosher home or rearing Jewish children. As the 20th century winds down, Orthodox Judaism asks for a commitment to live in the present high-tech, rat-race world and preserve traditions that date back to the 13th century B.C.

Most Orthodox Jews here are families with young professionals, often with graduate degrees. They work in successful careers as doctors, lawyers, professors and business owners.

The regimentation and richness of an Orthodox lifestyle fill a dimension otherwise missing from their lives, says Paula Rivkin, a clinical psychologist and activist in the Jewish community.

The community has its own burial society, council, ritual bath, social service network and court system for Jewish law - including divorces - all headed by Chief Rabbi Sholom Rivkin. From his book-lined study in University City, Rivkin earns a worldwide reputation as a scholar, educator, judge and religious leader.

It is Rivkin who provides the final authority and definitive resource on religious and legal questions in the Jewish community, whether he determines that a deli meat is kosher or sends a fax to Ireland to certify that a bride from here is Jewish.

The lifestyle of Orthodox Jews revolves around 613 commandments in The Torah, or five books of Moses, with thousands of more laws under those, said Rivkin.

Paula Rivkin, who is also the rabbi's wife, says structure and security make Orthodox Judaism thrive today.

"All over our country there's a tremendous desire for family and religious values," she said. "People are looking for spiritual meaning and a sense of community. People are feeling very lonely. And they want a connection with other people. Orthodox Judaism provides them with that feeling."

Life in the Orthodox community centers on home, synagogue and school. "People are constantly studying and growing," said Baron.

As spiritual leader of Nusach Hari B'nai Zion Congregation, Rabbi Aaron Borow seeks to make Judaism a more meaningful and beautiful way of life. That creates a significant challenge today, he acknowledges, as observant Jews combine success in secular lives with daily obligations required by Jewish law.

Rabbis realize that tradition draws Jews to an Orthodox lifestyle.

"There is that sense of discipline and desire just to be loyal to that tradition of 3,000 years," said Bienenfeld. "What happens is that you fall in love with a culture that offers a promise of religion, history and ethics that give your life context and meaning. …