Connecting to roots is a quintessentially Jewish experience. And Nusach Hari B’nai Zion has quite a history to celebrate.
Nusach Hari began in 1901 as a small minyan of Russian immigrants who met in a private home at 11th and Biddle. By 1905 the group, which had grown to forty families, rented a hall at 13th and Biddle for their services and officially chartered their congregation. In 1907 the charter was revised under the name Ohavay Shalom Nusach Hari. A “Nusach” refers to the traditional order and form of Jewish prayers. Nusach Hari’s name is derived from the desire to pray “in the spirit of Ari” – the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as “The Ari,” an acronym for “the Holy Rabbi Issac.”) The Ari revolutionized the study of Jewish mysticism, and taught that each commandment has a mystical meaning. The Ari developed his “Nusach” through his respect for all strains of tradition and customs in Judaism. Today, the Nusach Hari is the preferred order and form of prayer amongst kabbalists all over the world.
Another move was made in 1912 to larger quarters on 14th Street. In 1920, with a growing membership, the congregation purchased its own synagogue building from Beth Hamedrosh Hagodal at 1125 N. 11th Street. There they became a major center for the surrounding Jewish neighborhood, offering religious services, and cultural and community events. In 1938, as congregants moved west, along with much of the St. Louis Jewish population, attendance at the downtown location declined. Nusach Hari moved again, to a former residence at 1395 Blackstone Avenue in the West End. Eventually, Nusach Hari acquired land in the western edge of University City where it opened a new synagogue in 1959 with a large sanctuary, an auditorium, and a chapel. In 1961, Nusach Hari merged with B’nai Zion, a congregation founded in 1908 in the South Broadway area, and was renamed as Nusach Hari B’nai Zion Congregation. After more than 50 years at the same location, NHBZ has made the bold assessment that the community would be better served if it moved.
In 2011 NHBZ moved into its new and current building located at Price and Old Bonhomme Roads in Olivette. At its new location Nusach Hari B ‘nai Zion maintains its unparalleled commitment to creating and maintaining a real sense of community. The location was chosen to uniquely balance the following needs:
- A residential setting that allows for easy and safe access from neighborhood homes
- A neighborhood with a mix of home and apartment styles that caters to both singles and families of diverse economic capabilities, ages and personal situations
- An excellent public school district for those who have not opted for a Jewish Day School
- A central location providing easy access to work, school, shopping, public parks and entertainment
- A centralized location for Youth events, and an inviting space for youth activities
- A City that is energetic about development and welcomes our Synagogue as a positive influence
Of course, NHBZ brings to the new location an already well developed sense of community that nurtures constructive involvement in the lives of others.
Throughout its history, NHBZ has continued its respect for Jews of all traditions, customs and level of observance. Under its current rabbinic leadership of Rabbi Ze ‘ev Smason, the synagogue provides for a healthy mix of the mystical and the practical components of Judaism.
Filmmaker Saul Sudin grew up attending Nusach H’ari B’nai Zion, and in his video, Gateway to the West, he weaves a portrait of how every inch of the older structure vibrated with history both personal and shared. Combined with personal reflection, Sudin traces the steps of how Nusach H’ari and the B’nai Zion congregation that merged with it have had many homes over the years. In visiting sites past, present and future, the history of the community as a whole unfolds. The new NHBZ reflects the 21st century not only in religious motifs, but also through cutting edge technologies being employed to make a highly efficient, energy conscious “green” structure.
Just before the high holidays in 2011, the parade of Torahs, carried by longtime members, made their way to the newly completed synagogue as they cemented the future of congregation Nusach H’ari B’nai Zion.