An era will end for Young Israel later this year when the congregation's longtime spiritual leader steps down after a quarter century at his post. Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld, who has headed the congregation since 1980, will leave to make aliyah to Israel, probably later this summer or in the fall.
"He will be hugely missed by the congregation and by myself," said Barry Needle, president of the congregation. "For our children, he's been their rabbi and their teacher. They've kind of grown up with him."
Bienenfeld was well-known not just for his role at Young Israel. At various times he played active roles in the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Family and Children's Service, the Jewish Light, National Council of Synagogue Youth and the Vaad Hoeir. He also taught classes at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy and Block Yeshiva High School.
"I like to think that I made a difference in people's lives, that I've tried to help in various organizations that I've been involved in, that I've helped to educate many students that I've taught both young and old," Bienenfeld said.
He noted that teaching will also be a big part of his future in Israel.
"We're not planning on moving to Israel to retire," he said. "Ever since the synagogue gave me a sabbatical about 10 years ago, I've been thinking seriously of moving to Israel and trying to create some religious value there on some level."
The move is also not a sudden decision. Bienenfeld and his wife of 28 years, Yocheved, had always planned on living in Israel and preferred to do it before retiring.
"We were always on the same page," he said. "The question is not if but when."
Bienenfeld, 63, was born in New York City and held pulpits in Canada and New Orleans before moving to St. Louis in 1978 to head Traditional Congregation. Two years later, he made the move to Young Israel.
Since then he has earned much praise from those who know him.
"He's probably the most ethical person I've ever met in my life," Needle said.
Rabbi Yosef Landa, of the St. Louis Rabbinical Council, said Bienenfeld set a wonderful example in the community.
"Rabbi Bienenfeld has served Young Israel and the Jewish community with extraordinary distinction and honor for over a quarter of a century -- and for that we are grateful," Landa said. "His remarkable style of mild-mannered yet principled leadership, and the wise counsel he has offered to so many, will be sorely missed. I join my colleagues of the St. Louis Rabbinical Council in extending our very best wishes to the Bienenfelds as they prepare for their relocation to Israel."
Needle said the congregation will look for Bienenfeld's replacement to be someone who is both scholarly and able to reach out to both congregants and the community. He said a search committee has been formed and Bienenfeld hopes to depart by the High Holidays.
"It would be nice to have somebody in place by that time," he said. "But it's more important that we have the right person, than we just find somebody, so we're not taking the position that we have to find somebody by a specific date."
The congregation will honor the Bienenfeld and his wife at the upcoming annual dinner May 21 with a reception at 5 p.m.