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The Story of the Spirtas Family Torah

Shortly after being married in 1901 in St. Louis, MO, Morris and Celia Spirtas (grandparents of Bob Spirtas) moved 17 miles east to Belleville, IL.  Morris established a scrap rag and iron business and Celia had two boys and two girls, including Bob’s father, Abe.  The family purchased a house next to the small orthodox Synagogue four blocks from the center of town.

In addition to being one of the founding members of the Synagogue, Morris commissioned the purchase of a Torah from a Sofer named Max Baucus, who was a relative of Celia’s.  The Torah was probably written around the time of World War II (this estimate was confirmed a few years ago by a visiting Sofer, who was a friend of Rabbi Fred).  This Torah was one of five Torahs which were in the Synagogue where Bob grew up.   During World War II the number of Jewish families in Belleville grew to 70-80.

After the War, the move to suburbia in St. Louis resulted in an ever westward (away from Belleville) movement of the Jewish community – first to University City and then to Clayton, Ladue, Chesterfield and other suburbs.  Many of the Belleville families moved to the St. Louis suburbs.  After going away to college, essentially none of the third generation of Jews, including Bob and his two sisters, Brenda and Gale, returned to Belleville.

An even greater misfortune befell the Jewish community of East St. Louis, the town geographically situated between St. Louis and Belleville.  The demise of the slaughter houses and railroad switching yards resulted in an ever worsening economic situation.  Finally, in 1990 the East St. Louis congregation sold its large Synagogue to a Black Church and merged with the Belleville congregation, bringing to Belleville its Ark and several Torahs.  So the Belleville Synagogue had at least 10 torahs for a congregation of less than 20 families.

When Joan and Bob joined Adat Shalom a year after its founding, it seemed incongruous to them that such a vital growing congregation had only one torah (now known as the Texas Torah).  They knew that there were several torahs in Belleville, which were essentially unused.  The closest relative still living in Belleville was Bob’s uncle, Sam Spirtas, a long-time member of the East St. Louis congregation who had become a member of the Belleville synagogue.

Several attempts to obtain the family torah, including an offer to buy the torah, were unsuccessful.  At the suggestion of Rabbi Sid, the request was changed to “leasing” the torah and Sid sent a formal letter to the Belleville Synagogue.  The first response to this was a call from Sam Spirtas to Bob’s brother-in-law, Dr. Ronald Golbus.  Sam had seen the word “Reconstructionist” on the letterhead and wanted to know if this was a “Jews for Jesus” congregation.  After assurance that such was not the case, no more was heard until Brenda Spirtas Golbus (Ron’s wife and Bob’s sister) called Sam Spirtas several months later.  Sam said that the Adat Shalom request had been approved but the Belleville congregation wasn’t sure whether there was still any interest on the part of Bob or Adat Shalom.  Brenda convinced Sam that there was still a great interest.

Brenda called Bob with the good news and then proceeded to take charge of events.  She made arrangements to travel to Belleville from her home in Mansfield, OH, contingent on Bob obtaining a formal agreement between Adat Shalom and Congregation Beth Israel/Agudas Achim (the combined Belleville-East St. Louis Synagogue).  Bob then called Don Katz, the president of the Belleville congregation, who agreed in principle to lend the Torah.  He wanted a written agreement, but indicated that it would take a while to get a lawyer to draft such an agreement.  Bob then offered to speed up to process by finding a lawyer to prepare the lease agreement. (Although Adat Shalom was short on torahs, we did have a few lawyers.).  Steve Widdes (neighbor, friend, and lawyer) came to our rescue.  He had previously written a lease-of-torah agreement for his home-town congregation in Minnesota.  Steve was completely understanding of the situation and graciously offered to prepare the necessary documents.  Soon there was a flurry of activity, involving negotiation with a lawyer from the Belleville congregation, messengers for signatures from Sid and Frank Goldstein (Adat Shalom President at the time), plus Federal Express packages – all of which were provided cheerfully  and without compensation by Steve.  Also involved was Richard Alper, who obtained an insurance binder.

From this point on, events came under some semblance of control.  Early in June, 1992, Brenda drove to Belleville, picked up the Torah, and returned to Mansfield, OH.  On the weekend of June 27th, Bob and Joan drove to Mansfield, picked up the Torah, and drove back home, being careful to always keep the car locked and never out of their sight (talk about precious cargo).  In due course the Torah was delivered to Adat Shalom.

On a personal note, the imminent arrival of the Torah was a stimulus to both Bob and Joan to expand their religious horizons.  Bob had never learned Torah trope when he was growing up, but always wanted to develop this skill.  At the time of his thyroid surgery, he faced the small but finite possibility of damage to the laryngeal nerve, which would have put an end to his career in the Adat Shalom choir.  He made a promise to himself , that if he came out of the surgery with an intact voice, he would learn how to chant from the Torah.  The expected arrival of the family torah provided the initiative.  Thanks are due to Anita Shubert and Mark Soloman for their patience and help in this endeavor.  Joan had never learned how to do the blessings over the Torah.  So at a service in the Bethesda church, when the Torah was introduced to the congregation, Joan did the blessing and Bob chanted.  Brenda and Gale made a special trip to be in attendance.