The fascinating backstory to Temple Israel's Thanksgiving tradition

Temple Israel's annual Thanksgiving Dinner

In this file photo, Jayme Fingerman (left) co-chaired Temple Israel's 2017 Thanksgiving Dinner for Those in Need and joined Creve Coeur police officers and volunteers such as Dee Mogerman in packing food for guests.  Photos: Eric Berger

No question that St. Louis has more than its fair share of nonprofits and religious institutions that serve Thanksgiving dinner to those in need. But unique to Temple Israel’s Thanksgiving dinner story is that it originated from an act of kindness that transcended political and religious affiliation during World War II.

In 1935, a non-Jewish German national attending Washington University received a letter from the German military to “report to duty.” Not interested in returning to Germany to join the Nazi army, Ernest Wolf learned he could seek asylum in Mexico. The problem was that he didn’t have the financial means at the time to flee.

Wolf went door-to-door along Kingshighway Boulevard, asking leaders at various religious institutions for the money to fund his emigration. Told “no” by all, his final stop was at Congregation Temple Israel. There, Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman heard his plea and gave Wolf $300, ensuring his safe passage to Mexico to evade the Nazis.

Wolf spent the entirety of World War II in Mexico.

In 1986, Temple Israel received a check for $50,000 and a note from Wolf asking for the temple to “do good things” with the money. Alvan D. Rubin, senior rabbi at the time, decided to use Wolf’s gift to start a Thanksgiving dinner for those in need. It has now become an annual event, with 250 or so TI volunteers serving more than 400 guests each year.

In mid-2016, the Temple Israel Thanksgiving Fund was launched, in memory of Margy and Jake Bromberg. This fund, coupled with other generous donations, allows the temple to continue the Thanksgiving dinner for those in need. This year, TI celebrates the 33rd anniversary of the dinner.