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Jewish groups reach out, while some consider merging

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2011 - Central Reform Congregation in the Central West End, which has grown from 10 households in 1984 to more than 800 today, is one of the area's successes. As with many growing congregations, it focuses on inclusiveness, pluralism and warm, welcoming campuses.

For example, no German-American Jew at CRC would say that Eastern European Jews are not Jewish enough. Two decades ago, a handful of Jewish elders were saying that and calling marriages between children of each group "mixed marriages."

CRC is one of several dynamic congregations welcoming newcomers of all ages. Rabbis Susan Talve, Randy Fleisher and Ed Harris lead members to yearlong involvement in social responsibility and advocacy programs that help obey a Jewish commandment to "repair the world." CRC has many young members but plenty of seniors, too.

The mother of young adults herself, Talve enjoys the younger generation.

"When I get a request to talk to young adults, I try never to say no," she said. "I think that they want to hear from a rabbi is really cool." A dynamic speaker and interfaith leader who embraced St. Louis Muslims immediately after 9/11, she's lectured or kibitzed informally at nearly every local university and college.

Doors Shut

Not all young synagogues succeed. Kol Am in Chesterfield closed this month. Founded in 1974 by a group who left B'nai El Congregation, it worshiped in modest residences for most of its history. Then, in 2006, Kol Am congregation moved into a synagogue it had built, a 22,000-square foot building in Chesterfield.

But Kol Am members' dreams were dashed when its new facility failed to draw enough families to sustain one rabbi. Kol Am let its rabbi go at the end of December; the building is for sale.

"I believe the Kol Am situation was systematic of something that has been present in St. Louis for 30 years," said Rabbi Mark Shook, senior rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Creve Coeur. "In this community of about 60,000 Jews, where there is no population growth (you have to ask): What constitutes a healthy population to keep services in how many synagogues? What is the right number of Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructive and Reform?"

That St. Louis has seven Reform congregations is a "national phenomenon," Shook said. Detroit has twice as many Jews, about 120,000, and about half the congregations that St. Louis has, he said.

"You diminish others when you decide to start a new synagogue," he said.

Several Kol Am members just joined Temple Emmanuel in Creve Coeur and enrolled their children in its Hebrew School. Other Kol Am members are considering where, and whether, to affiliate.

The Jewish Federation has tried to get congregations with membership challenges to consider merging with other congregations. Income has weakened at several congregations as retirement funds diminished, jobs disappeared and houses went "under water." Some rabbis said that a handful of their members requested a "leave" from worship services and fees because they couldn't pay the assessments. Most rabbis make adjustments for needy members, but that affects budgets.

Merger Reluctance

Two small Orthodox congregations, Shaarei Chesed and Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol, peaceably merged in 2006. But that remains an exception.

Three years ago Temple Emmanuel had preliminary merger discussions with Temple Israel, also in Creve Coeur. Those talks went flat. Last year Temple Israel and United Hebrew in Chesterfield, each historic Reform congregations, had "preliminary talks" about eventually merging.

"Both board of directors approved the discussion," said Rabbi Howard Kaplansky of United Hebrew. "United Hebrew had four town hall meeting of our congregation. It became clear that there was great passion for continuing as we are."

Beginning in June 2009, the leadership at Shaare Zedek in University City and Brith Shalom Knesth Israel in Richmond Heights, both Conservative congregations, had long and sometimes emotional discussions about merger. Near the end of last year, the boards of each synagogue voted not to take the next step, outlining a merger agreement. They ended talks.

Between College and Affiliation

"We are in the middle of a cultural shift in which young (Jews) are not ready to affiliate with a synagogue so we need to have something different for them," said Yoni Sarason, 26, a Cincinnati native, who stayed in St. Louis after graduating from Washington University.

Passover and the weekly Friday Sabbath meal are home celebrations that lose some of their joy when eaten alone. Since at least the Babylonian exile, Jews have gathered together in homes to praise God, break bread and light candles.

"Judaism is community based," Sarason said. And he helps provide a St. Louis home for young Jewish adults as coordinator and full-time resident of Next Dor (dor is Hebrew for generation) in the Central West End. There are several Next Dor centers nationally, but he said the center here is the only one with a resident leader.

He welcomes Jews over 21 through their late 30s most afternoons, evenings and especially on the third Friday of each month. That night at sunset, the growing community hosts a Shabbat -- Sabbath-- dinner that begins with candle lighting and prayers. About 30 to 40 young adults gather around the large dinner table.

"We had 70 one night, it was crazy and fun," he said.

Later, they eat a light buffet. The 1908 three-story, red-painted brick house is on a bus route. Its street has many multi-family apartments. Based on visitors' bikes in the front hall during a reporter's recent early evening visit, cycling is more popular than the bus.

The house's Facebook page has 450 followers. Its email blasts go out to its list of 250 names. Since opening in November 2009, the house has had more than 2,000 people visit, he said.

"There are lot more Jewish young adults here than people think," he said. Several regulars who drop by Next Dor work for Teach For America. Others work for hospitals, universities, tech companies or attend grad schools. Half are newcomers; but half are native St. Louisans back from college, he said. With the slow entry-job market, more St. Louis Jewish young adults return, he said.

Many regulars are "underemployed" in part-time or low-skilled jobs while searching for jobs that they studied for, Sarason said. Many have time to hang out. They can play the baby grand piano, an organ, and drums or work in the planned veggie garden.

"Most who come find that they have just one to two degrees of separation," he said.

After candle lighting, conversations might be about baseball games or their efforts at reading the mystic Jewish Kabala writings. Sometimes they organize volunteer projects to "repair the world" tutoring struggling students or helping friends recycle electronics.

Environmentalist Ben Senturia led a discussion at Next Dor one night. An elderly Soviet Georgia Jewish refusenik won rapt attention as he spoke about his experience another evening. Most any Jewish scholar visiting St. Louis gets an invitation to hunker down with Next Dor drop-ins, Sarason said.

As it develops, the young adults' community is encouraged to come up with ideas about "what to do," Sarason said. He's helped a few make job contacts. He's more like a concierge who can answer question about the St. Louis Jewish scene, cultural and music events. "We are good on free stuff," he said.

Talve had the idea for Next Dor. Central Reform Congregation owns the house, but the 18-month-old project is funded by the Jewish Federation and operates independently of CRC. Talve sees it as "an incubator" not for her congregation but for all area congregations.

"They don't have to join us at CRC; they can join any congregation or none," she said. "Next Dor is good for all of us."

Amy L. Sales, assistant director of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, is impressed with this young adult movement. "While these centers form a small cohort of the young adult Jewish population those who hang out there are not denying their Judaism, just finding in another form, " she said. And she thinks the rates of affiliation for those in their 20s and 30s are not "that much lower than their parents."

Reaching Even Younger

By 2025, might the Next Dor community resemble a group of ardent Jewish parents? On April 24, Hilary Cedergreen and Julie Eastland, members of Congregation Shaare Emeth in Creve Coeur, are planning a children's Passover Seder for their children and friends: 22 children under the age of 12. Coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Council and its Bohm Social Justice Initiative, the seder will include reports on children their age living in hunger in the U.S. and Sudan after the Biblical Exodus story. Over the full week of Passover, many Jewish families have additional Seder dinners on contemporary looks at Exodus.

"After the children hear about the Jews fleeing oppression, we will ask them, 'Isn't going hungry a form of oppression?" Cedergreen said. "Who has the right to food?"

The two moms call it a hunger Seder. They expect their children to take action to help hungry children. The children might later bake and sell traditional Jewish braided challah (a bread) at their grade school or maybe at Washington University, she said. Half the money raised will go to hungry children in this country, half to Sudanese children, she said.

Her Jewish mother and her non-Jewish husband support Cedergreen in her efforts to have a Jewish household, she said. To help the children appreciate their many blessings and to reach out to the lonely in modern exile, her three children joined others last Christmas Eve and delivered blankets and canned food to immigrants from Vietnamese, Somalia and Bosnia.

"The people were so pleased that someone thought of them on the holiday, they hardly looked at the gifts when they opened their doors," she said. "They smiled at our children."

"Everyone has to find what speaks to them," she said. "I don't think that you can force people to be involved." But, she also said, "I don't have any Jewish friends who are not affiliated with a synagogue."

The St. Louis Jewish community has reason to grateful for many caring Jewish parents like Cedergreen and Eastland, leaders said.

"We have great reason for optimism in the St. Louis Jewish community," said Mark Shook, Temple Israel's rabbi emeritus. "It reacts rapidly, is innovative with new programs and a whole range of social media and there is incredible activity and generosity."

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on religion.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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