Le'iluy nishmas Kehos ben Avrohom Yitzchok Spetner z"l,
niftar 8 Elul, 5765. Written on his first yahrtzeit.
My father was known to many across the Jewish globe as Kenny
Spetner, askan and builder of the St. Louis Jewish
Community. He was also a master insurance agent for
Transamerica Life Insurance Company and a popular figure in
the mostly non-Jewish insurance field. My brother, Jonathan,
was maspid Dad last year with the following story:
Transamerica periodically creates a film presentation
depicting the life of a legendary producer, shown at the
opening forum of Transamerica's Leading Producers Convention.
That year's convention took place in Rome, Italy. Unbeknownst
to Dad, his life was about to unfold before a large,
expectant audience, with an initial hint that would be
apparent solely to him.
Jonathan watched my father closely as the lights dimmed. The
film opened with a teenage look-alike of Dad entering Soldan
High School's auditorium. The boy approached a banner
emboldened, in Latin, with, "Dare Something Worthy," Soldan's
motto for the class of '37. Dad seemed perplexed. When the
title, "Dare Something Worthy — The Ken Spetner Story"
appeared, consternation took over his features. As the story
progressed, so did my father's discomfort. The public
attention had upset Dad terribly.
The film was a true Kiddush Hashem, about a visionary
who used all his talents, energy and resources to help his
people; whose legendary success as a life insurance agent was
only a means to the higher purpose of his legendary devotion
to the Jewish People — locally, nationally and
The story ended, the lights went on and, suddenly, every Jew
at the convention came out of the woodwork, gravitating
towards my father, clearly proud to be one of the Chosen
Nation. Now my brother witnessed a complete transformation in
Dad. A glow of satisfaction emerged as my father realized the
positive impact of this publicity on his fellow Jews.
Totally unassuming, Dad avoided the limelight. But if a
fellow Jew could be influenced — well, then it was
My father was an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary
things. My husband, Mayer, was maspid Dad with the
mishna from Pirkei Ovos: "Where there is no
man, strive to be a man."
Born in 1921, Dad was orphaned at 15, when my Grandpa Abe
died suddenly. Strong-willed Grandma Rose, born Rashi Raskas
in St. Louis in 1890, raised Dad and his two younger brothers
alone, by selling life insurance.
Dad came from stubborn stock. Rose was one of eight siblings
whose father had immigrated to St. Louis from Kovno,
Lithuania in 1881. Great-grandfather Shalom Yitzchok Raskas
lived in poverty rather than desecrate the holy Shabbos. He
eventually scraped together the funds to bring over Shifra
Rivka and the baby. The couple wanted cholov Yisroel
and to this end purchased a cow. Eventually, the Raskas
Dairy was born.
Later, they sent their two eldest sons back to Slobodka to
learn Torah at the tender ages of 11 and 13, to be reunited
years later when they returned to St. Louis with wives and
children in tow.
Shalom Yitzchok and Shifra Rivka eventually "retired" to
Eretz Yisroel and are buried on Har Hazeisim.
Grandpa Abe's widowed father, great-grandfather Shimon
Spetner, also left St. Louis in 1922 to live his last years
in Chevron. He died shortly before the Arab uprising and was
Dad's formal religious education was of the after-school
variety and, as an orphan, he worked to help make ends meet.
His leadership qualities emerged during World War II when he
served as a naval ordinance officer stationed in Cuba. There
he took Jewish boys under his wing and became the unofficial
My father moved to the strong rhythm of high moral integrity,
a sense of responsibility and innate stubbornness; the melody
was his good-natured humor, sense of fun and eternal
optimism. It was an unbeatable combination. He sang this song
throughout his whole life.
Dad's great sense of Jewish pride at a time when Jews strived
to melt into American culture gave him a clear direction.
While most of his contemporaries "did well" if they married a
Jew, my father waited until he found a religious girl, Rita
Krumbein from Boro Park, with whom he built a family of five
children. Meanwhile, life began in earnest.
There is no way, in this brief portrait of Dad, to detail a
lifetime of unusual accomplishments. In essence: Money was
earned to give away. (The rumor was: Most Jews tithed 10
percent, but Ken Spetner kept 10 percent.) Shuls were
established, schools were built, rosh yeshivos arrived,
immigrants found work, the elderly were less lonely, guests
slept and ate, business partnerships were made, kiruv
got its start . . . My father, with Mom at his side, did
it all and more. And, amazingly, he transmitted the feeling
that each project, large or small, was an adventure!
Dad was always climbing mountains. He had a single agenda:
the growth of Torah Judaism locally and worldwide. Countless
obstacles were encountered along the way, but he was
relentless in his pursuit of Torah growth. Dad's trust was in
Hashem and his guidance lay at the feet of the gedolim
of his generation, untouched by personal honor or
To recount all of my father's efforts would paint a picture
of a man who seemed larger than life. But Dad was life
itself: an affectionate father, trusted friend, kidder-
around, joke- and story-teller and lover of Jews young and
old. He struggled his whole life, but he never saw life as a
struggle. He loved it all; he loved being a Yid.
From a child's perspective, my father wasn't just a community
man. He was whole and there for us as well as for the
klal. We explored caves, went fishing, and vacationed
on a houseboat. Everywhere we went, Dad perused the local
directory for Jewish names, scouted out the nearest
minyan, and sometimes roamed the local Jewish cemetery
to check out the tombstones. He seemed to connect every
remote corner of America to a Jew of his acquaintance. Most
Sundays we went to visit the elderly, the lonely or the
An innocent child sees the true nature of a person. As a
little girl at the local Day School learning about Avrohom
Ovinu, the father of chesed, my image of this
forefather was of Dad's countenance with a long white beard.
I saw my father as Avrohom Ovinu, pure and simple. It was no
wonder. Dad was an eager and joyful baal chesed in
every way, and he and my mother Rivka Dina bas Moshe Yaakov,
a"h, were my primary examples of living kindness.
So many of us find it difficult to move past our personal
histories to a place beyond ourselves, and to strive for
something more than simply being comfortable. Let my father
be a lesson to every Jew who feels that he cannot reach
Dad had no special yichus, grew up poor, and never had
the opportunity to learn much Torah in his youth. He was an
ordinary man who did extraordinary things.
And he changed the world.