Congregation Shaare Emeth – a brief history
Shaare Emeth was founded as the Temple Association in 1867. In January 1869, the Temple Building Association formally became Congregation Shaare Emeth, the “Gates of Truth.” The Temple was dedicated on August 27, 1869 in an elaborate ceremony described in the local and national press. The congregation eagerly embraced the principles of Reform Judaism and quickly engaged Solomon Sonneschein as its first rabbi, a man who became a leading spokesman for Reform Judaism.
The congregation grew under his leadership. His lectures and classes were favorably received, and he put Shaare Emeth “on the map.” In January of 1870, Rabbi Sonneschein organized a religious school, which grew to 110 pupils. By the spring of 1875, Shaare Emeth had 200 members, with 128 students in the religious school.
In 1879, in an unprecedented gesture, Sonnenschein and the Board offered to let members of the Second Baptist Church worship in our sanctuary while their church was repaired following a fire.
A highly controversial figure within the Congregation and greater Jewish community, Rabbi Sonneschein eventually departed from Shaare Emeth to start Temple Israel Congregation. He shaped Shaare Emeth as one of the leading Reform congregations the country, and he was a key figure in the development of Classical Reform Judaism. His wife, Rosa Sonneschein was an equally controversial but important figure in St. Louis and Shaare Emeth history. A successful author who wasn’t afraid to oppose her husband in public, Rosa was a trailblazer for the cause of women’s equality within our congregation and movement.
The Reform movement nationally was split into the “radicals” and “moderates.” Sonneschein had identified himself with the “radicals” who wished to make major changes very quickly. When he left Shaare Emeth, he left a divided and wounded membership behind. His successor would have to be not only a leader, but also a healer. With this in mind, the leaders of Shaare Emeth recruited Rabbi Dr. Samuel Sale as their new rabbi. Sale was engaged as rabbi of Shaare Emeth in 1887, serving the congregation for 32 years, before becoming Rabbi Emeritus from 1919 to 1937.
Though he was a Democrat, Sale was invited to give a prayer at the Republican Convention of 1896 in St. Louis, which nominated William McKinley. In 1907, he participated in a Pulitzer public ceremony marking the transfer of the Post-Dispatch properties from father to son. He also worked hard to provide adult education for his congregation and community, beginning a centuries-long tradition of Shaare Emeth leadership in the field of Adult Education.
Rabbi Dr. Louis Witt then served from 1919 – 1929. He was followed by Rabbi Julius Gordon – the next “giant” of Shaare Emeth’s story – who served from 1929 – 1954 and guided the congregation through some of its most difficult times, including the Great Depression and a move from Lindell & Vandeventer to Delmar & Trinity. The next rabbi, Burton Levinson, stayed four years before resigning, at which time Julius Nodel was installed as rabbi from 1959 – 1971. The difficult and controversial process of deciding to move from University City to Creve Coeur began during Rabbi Nodel’s tenure, and his departure was motivated in part by the congregation’s initial refusal to move, despite his urging.
Rabbi Nodel’s resignation opened the door for Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, who had served as an assistant and co-rabbi with Nodel. Rabbi Stiffman, currently Shaare Emeth’s Rabbi Emeritus, served from 1971 – 2004. Under his leadership, the congregation was able to heal the bitter wounds that had been inflicted in the highly polarized debate about the move and come to a unified decision. The new property was first used simply for Shaare Emeth’s religious school, but the Delmar property was eventually sold and a campaign undertaken to build a sanctuary at Ladue & Ballas.
In June of 2004, Rabbi James Bennett assumed the position of Senior Rabbi. He was no stranger to the congregation, having previously served as Assistant and Associate Rabbi. Rabbi Andrea Goldstein became Assistant Rabbi following her ordination in 1998. She agreed to continue with the congregation, working in partnership with Rabbi Bennett first as Associate Rabbi and then as Rabbi, helping to lead the congregation forward as colleagues
Cantor Seth Warner has served as Cantor since 2007. Rabbi Lori Levine joined the clergy team as Rabbi Educator in 2018.
An Historic Merger
Share Emeth was originally founded by members of the B’nai El congregation seeking to create the first Reform synagogue in St. Louis. In 2016, B’nai El became part of Shaare Emeth. The historic merger of these two congregations into Shaare Emeth strengthened our congregation and ensure that their legacies would be continued within our walls.
Shaare the Vision
Shaare the Vision began in 2010 with little more than that – a vision. Over the course of the next seven years a number of members served on the project as we moved toward the realization of our goals. The Sanctuary, Chapel and Auditorium were aging. Refurbishing and updating our facilities became a major goal. We aimed to provide greater accessibility and more intimate worship spaces. The committee and sub-committees carefully examined all possibilities, consulting with leading authorities in the field of synagogue design. These efforts at design and fundraising resulted in the successful completion of our project in 2017. Coinciding with the celebration of our 150th anniversary, they marked a new impetus toward the continuous growth of our beloved Share Emeth.
Through Good Times & Bad
Shaare Emeth is a congregation that has innovated from the beginning, yet gone through some trying times. A thorough review of our history reveals a pattern of difficult periods followed by victorious ones. We have survived depressions, wars, the Holocaust and sometimes bitter divisions among our members. Yet we also experienced periods of great growth, continuous innovation, the founding of the State of Israel and the maturation of the American Jewry. We survived stressful times with some rabbis and presidents. Yet we flourished through most of our history guided by wonderful lay and professional leaders.
This page offers a highly condensed version of the history found in “150 Years of Congregation Shaare Emeth,” a book by Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman that is available from the Temple office.
Shaare Emeth Locations
Seventeenth & Pine (1867 – 1897)
Lindell & Vandeventer (1897 – 1932)
Delmar & Trinity (1932 – 1980)
Ladue & Ballas (1980 – Present)