Sometimes real life is more astonishing and inspiring than fiction. This true story is about a girl and boy from different families who attended Shaare Emeth Religious School in the early 1970s. They probably saw each other, even though she was six years older.
About five decades later, they learned they were siblings. I have the privilege of sharing their joy and telling their story.
My first involvement in this story was preparing a student for his bar mitzvah in 1972. Stephen Stein was the son of German Jewish immigrants. He enjoyed coming to the synagogue, especially listening to the music of cantor Edward Fogel, organist Edward Wallace and the choir.
Music has become his passion, especially nurtured by his uncle John Stein. He was told that his grandmother, Lore Stein, was a famous pianist in Germany before WWII. Much to his chagrin, Stephen’s family left the congregation shortly after he became a bar mitzvah. He remembered learning from his teachers Shaare Emeth, including a favorite named Beulah Rachlin. We lost contact for many years.
Stephen then studied music and became a symphony conductor; his last job as a conductor was in Houston. His love of Judaism became more intense when he was in his thirties. Sitting in a Bible study class at a Houston synagogue, he met Charlene and Norman Meltzer, active members of Shaare Emeth from St. Louis. He asked them if they knew Shaare Emeth, Fogel or Stiffman.
The Meltzers put us in touch almost immediately. Stephen and I renewed our friendship and formed a new bond. Stephen enrolled at Hebrew Union College to become a rabbi.
While a student, he preached an impressive sermon to Shaare Emeth. Stephen was ordained in 2003 and continued to serve congregations in Terre Haute, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Central Florida before retiring. He and her husband Steven live in Orlando, Florida, where Steven was on the faculty of the School of Performing Arts at the University of Central Florida.
Stephen Julius Stein had always wanted a brother or sister. His desire would soon come true.
In the 1970s, my wife Arlene and I were friends with Max and Beulah Rachlin, active temple members. Yes, she was the wonderful teacher at our religious school that Stephen remembered.
Max was a well-known ophthalmologist. He and Beulah adopted a baby girl from the Children’s Home Society of Missouri, only to learn that her name was Laurel. The Rachlins shortened her name to Lara, and she flourished as a girl. She didn’t know anything about her birth parents, but she was told she was named after a grandmother.
I knew her as a wonderful and enthusiastic student. Lara mostly remembers her religious school class taught by Bob Cohn, editor emeritus of the Jewish light.
She was musically gifted and I asked her to accompany church services on the organ, which she did with grace. She was a serious student, full of life.
I officiated at his marriage in 1973 to Dan Steinel. Her mother died too young and her father moved out of town to join his family. We lost contact for many years.
After her father died, she found her adoption papers with the names of her biological parents. She made numerous attempts to find them, but without success. (They both died young.)
She and her husband Dan have moved to different cities. She worked many years for United States today then The Washington post and he was an engineer at Sprint. In recent years, after returning to the Kansas City area, she has become director of music and vocal soloist at Congregation Kol Ami. In addition, she sang in several choirs and was well known in musical circles.
One day, she told her story to a friend who was very good at restoration research and who had access to software that allowed her to search microfilm and microfiche. There she found the death notices of both birth parents, as well as information that they were survived by a son, Stephen Julius Stein, and an uncle John Stein.
After two weeks of searching, Lara found the names of Stephen Julius Stein and Steven Chicurel posted on a wedding site. On February 5, 2018, Lara wrote a cautious note to Steven Chicurel Stein, stating that she believed she was related to her husband. She offered him the opportunity to tear it up if he felt it would bother Stephen Julius.
Steven Chicurel handed the note to Stephen Julius who immediately burst into joy. He may indeed have a sister.
“Just nine days later, on Valentine’s Day, I heard from my brother, who told me that no one in the family had ever mentioned a sibling abandoned for adoption. I sent him the court papers so he could see that the appointees had the same names as his parents and that they called me “Laurel”. I told her what the Children’s Home Society of Missouri told my parents: that my birth parents were married outside of high school, were not ready to take care of a baby, and that I had been named “Laurel” in honor of a family member who was a renowned pianist.
Stephen said it all added up: “(She) was named in honor of our grandmother, Lore, who had a career as a pianist in Germany before her, our grandfather, our father and our uncle did not leave in 1938 to escape the Nazis. “
Stephen’s response was, “We are brothers and sisters!
Lara and Dan flew to meet Stephen and Steven in Orlando. She shared her story with her rabbi in Kansas City, who invited her newly found rabbi brother to preach one of the Great Holy Day sermons in his temple.
The brothers and sisters’ spouses were very supportive and suggested that the brother and sister take the time to be together and get to know each other. A few months later, brother and sister traveled to Santa Fe to enjoy the famous opera company. During this trip, they shared their love of music, their family stories and their special joy. They have found many similar personal likes and dislikes and share a similar philosophy of music.
Lara even met her uncle John Stein before his death at an old age.
The Arch and Powell Hall
Lara and Stephen had very special memories of the arch doors on the bimah to Shaare Emeth, which are now in our chapel. On November 3, we stood together at these doors to remember and pray. I had tears in my eyes as I offered a blessing for their reunion in the congregation they still love.
This whole story came together on the evening of November 6 at the Powell Symphony Hall. On the screen above the stage, a slide appeared announcing that the St. Louis Symphony Concert was sponsored by Stephen Julius Stein and Lara Steinel in memory of their uncle John Stein, a devoted patron of the symphony.
I was very moved as I thought about our years together, first as a rabbi and students, now as dear friends. I was touched by the love between brother and sister, the unity of their spouses and the love of music that united them.
I felt so grateful to be a part of this story, one of my rabbinate’s greatest rewards. As we went our separate ways at the end of the gig, they both said:
“We will come back often. We’ve been gone too long.
May it come true.
Jeffrey Stiffman is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Shaare Emeth Congregation.