Our storied history began on Erev Rosh Hashanah in 1837 in a rented room above Max’s Grocery and Restaurant on 2nd and Spruce Streets, a location that is now part of the Arch grounds in downtown St. Louis. With a Torah newly purchased from Philadelphia, two Jewish immigrants organized the first minyan ever held west of the Mississippi River.
Four years later, after continuing to meet and pray in various locations, St. Louis’ fledgling community adopted a constitution under the name United Hebrew Congregation. It was the first synagogue west of the Mississippi and only the 20th in the nation. In those years, we also organized St. Louis’ first Jewish cemetery, held its first Jewish religious conversion and formed its first Jewish women’s organization, “the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association of the United Hebrew Congregation.” Formed to help victims of a cholera epidemic in 1849, that group still exists under the simpler name “Sisterhood” or “WRJ” and is the godmother of our Community Action Committee.
In the early days, UH’s services were orthodox, and our transition to the Reform movement was slow and cautious. We joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1878, withdrew in 1885 and rejoined in 1904. Kippot remained mandatory while reading from the Torah until 1913.
In the 1920s, after making several moves over the decades, we purchased land on Skinker Boulevard across from Forest Park for a new home. Some nearby residents objected and sued to prevent construction of our “church.” Litigation went all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, which dismissed the lawsuit. As a result, we were able to erect our magnificent architectural gem that served as our home for over sixty years and is still a landmark on the western edge of St. Louis, where it is now the home of the Missouri Historical Society.
During the Skinker era our pendulum swung back toward the more traditional side of the Reform movement with the first weekday Hebrew school, first Bar Mitzvah, first Bat Mitzvah, and first full-time Cantor of any St. Louis Reform congregation. Also during those years our congregation gained national prominence when President Harry Truman invited Rabbi Samuel Thurman to become only the second rabbi (the first since George Washington’s time) to say a blessing at a presidential inauguration.
As the Jewish population of St. Louis moved west, our congregation followed. At Woods Mill and Conway Roads in Chesterfield, we built the Ann and Ullus Gudder Educational Building in 1977 and a beautiful adjoining sanctuary and office complex in 1989.
There, our tradition of innovation has continued. Since the late 1990s, we have been the home of artist-in-residence Rick Recht, who conducts family services on the High Holidays and "Light Up Shabbat" services eight Friday evenings a year. In 2007, we commissioned a new Sefer Torah, the world’s first Torah scroll completely written by a woman scribe. In commemoration of the new Torah, we donated one of our existing scrolls to a Jewish seminary, the Abraham Geiger College, in Potsdam Germany to assist in the regrowth of Judaism in a country whose leaders once endeavored to destroy all Torahs.
For more than a century, United Hebrew has been distinguished by its outstanding rabbis. Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg is only our fifth senior rabbi in 130 years.