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Bais Abe bids farewell to its young interim rabbi

The home of George and Darla Grossberg is packed with congregants, students and friends of Rabbi Ben Greenfield. They’ve gathered to wish their beloved rabbi farewell as he leaves Bais Abraham Congregation to start his next chapter as rabbi of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Shul.

“I became a rabbi here,” Greenfield tells the crowd. “You took a fully functioning synagogue with a vibrant community and a legacy of great rabbis, and you gave it to a kid just out of rabbinical school.”

It’s true: Greenfield was hired fresh out of yeshiva in August 2017. He signed his Bais Abe contract the same day he was ordained from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City. Bais Abe, a Modern Orthodox congregation in University City, hired him to be their interim rabbi after Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who had served the congregation for 13 years, left for Kesher Israel, a synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Bais Abe president Martha Ginsburg said Greenfield impressed the congregation right away.

“He was thoughtful,” she said. “He had so much energy, and you could tell he had a wealth of knowledge already.”

Greenfield shared his knowledge with St. Louis. Congregants joined him for weekly classes at Bais Abe, including the popular “Midrash & Merlot,” a nighttime session featuring Greenfield’s insights and fancy wine and cheese.

Greenfield engaged with Jewish students at Washington University, teaching a weekly class on campus and meeting with students. They studied the parts of Talmud about conversion, provoking thoughtful questions about what it means to be and to become Jewish.

“Having Rabbi Ben do so much for the community, just because he wanted to, showed a lot about who he was, and I’m really gonna miss him,” said rising junior Ali Zak, who organized the weekly class. She was awed by Greenfield’s commitment to university students and impressed by his ability to meet them at their individual levels.

Rising junior Ari Rosenthal met with Greenfield one-on-one each week for conversations about Torah. The two go way back: When Rosenthal was in high school, Greenfield was his counselor at Szarvas, a Jewish summer camp in Hungary. 

“He introduced me to a side of Judaism I never experienced before,” like teachings about Jewish  mindfulness, Rosenthal said.

Greenfield brought joy to students of all ages, from children at the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy and the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School to older adults at the Crown Center for Senior Living.

“I just love listening to him,” said Crown Center resident Sharon Stone, who attended Greenfield’s weekly classes at the center. “He’s so smart and so open-minded.”

And the rabbi wowed congregants with stunning snippets from the rich Jewish history of St. Louis. For a class entitled “The Torah History of St. Louis,” Greenfield welcomed congregants into his home.

He also quickly became known for his seders. For Shavuot, the rabbi and his congregants enjoyed four cups of coffee instead of wine over a Haggadah discussing responsibility rather than freedom. On Yom HaShoah, they sat on the floor for a seder of reflection and eating ash on eggs (a Jewish custom traditionally done for Tisha B'av). And for Passover, Greenfield started a matzah pizza contest that brought a little ruach (spirit) to the chametz-free holiday.

Greenfield said he will miss having a backyard and being called “hon” by store employees. He’ll miss the always vibrant response to the last announcement of Friday night services: “Do we have any kosher in St. Louis updates?” But most of all, he’ll miss the St. Louis Jewish community.

“It’s very bittersweet,” he said. “The opportunity in New York is very exciting, but Bais Abraham is an exceptionally fantastic synagogue and community. There was no better community to be received into and to begin to learn what it means to be a synagogue rabbi.”

Guy Genin, a mechanical engineering professor at Washington University, commended Greenfield’s strength of character and the way he always returned to Bais Abe “even keel.”

“You have embraced the values of this community even when the community itself did not,” he told Greenfield.

Bais Abe presented Greenfield with some farewell gifts: a traveling havdalah set and a handmade challah board.

But Greenfield had a parting gift for the community, too. St. Louisans can donate to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund in Greenfield’s honor, and their contributions will be given to the Mikvah Project Fund. The main St. Louis mikvah, built decades ago, begs structural and aesthetic redesign.

“Going to a mikvah should always be a spiritual experience, and the beautiful setting is one tool for creating that,” Greenfield said. “St. Louis should have a really beautiful mikvah.”

Rabbi Garth Silberstein, whom Greenfield knows from rabbinical school, will start at Bais Abe in August. 

“He’s a great fit for this community,” Greenfield said. “And I know Bais Abe will only grow and become stronger under his leadership in the next years.”

Greenfield spent his last Shabbat at Bais Abe on his birthday, June 22. He planned to leave St. Louis on June 28.

But he’ll be back soon. Greenfield will return to St. Louis for a bar mitzvah Aug. 24 and a wedding Sept. 8. And, he said, he’ll come to St. Louis “whenever the Cards are in the World Series.”

Bais Abe will forever have meaning for Greenfield. 

“Bais Abe will always be the place where I gave my first High Holiday sermon,” he said. “Where I worked with my first converts. Where I did my first funerals. These are the first people I sat shiva with or visited in the hospital or celebrated bar mitzvahs with.” 

“Bais Abe will always be a place of mitzvahs, and for that reason, Bais Abe will never change,” Greenfield said in his farewell speech. “Thank you.”