New digital initiative gets families engaged in Judaism all over the city

digital initiative

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Whether it is mulling the particulars of Torah law in the Old Courthouse or scouring the Missour Botanical Garden to find the four species of plant relevant to Sukkot, young Jews in the St. Louis area have a new opportunity to learn about Judaism.

And they’ll have the badges to prove it.

“It is an online-based curriculum that uses the city of St. Louis as a classroom,” said Rori Picker Neiss, maharat at Bais Abraham Congregation who will become executive director next month of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “Basically, parents and kids together can go to places around the city and talk about the different Jewish things that would pertain to some of the sites that they would visit anyway.”

Bais Abraham is sponsoring Gesher (baisabe.com/gesher), a recently introduced online educational initiative in which youngsters can earn digital “badges” for visiting various sites around St. Louis and engaging in certain “missions” there. Most often participants are asked to take a photo or write down their thoughts regarding Judaic questions while at a given location. These materials can then be submitted online. 

“Judaism doesn’t just happen in synagogues or in day schools,” said Neiss, who is spearheading the program that she hopes will engage both parents and their children. “It really empowers the parents. You don’t have to outsource Jewish education. You can do it.”

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Rabbi Hyim Shafner agrees, noting that the Orthodox synagogue is aiming to create activities for families who might not otherwise involve themselves in Jewish educational programming. The badging concept adds an element that makes it more engaging for kids.

“Obviously, the Boy Scouts have been using it for decades,” he said.

It also creates a fun dynamic.

“We don’t want parents to have to tell the kids to do it,” he said. “We want kids to say, ‘I really want this badge. Let’s look at my Gesher account before we go to the Zoo,’ or ‘Let’s look at my Gesher account to see where we should go.’”

There are 15 badges, each one requiring three to six missions spread across 15 sites in the area in both the Jewish and general communities. Part of earning a kashrut badge might involve meeting the kashrut supervisor at Kohn’s Deli and asking him about his job while another mission would send a participant to Ted Drewes to say the proper blessing over frozen custard. A Rosh Hashanah badge involves five missions including to the Missouri History Museum to explore an exhibit and to the St. Louis Zoo to take a picture of an animal whose horns would be appropriate for shofar making. A visit to City Museum, where discarded scrap has been turned into useful items, helps earn a badge in environmentalism. 

Other badges pertain to particular Jewish sites like those dedicated to the Jewish Community Center or the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. The JCRC developed its own badge as well and there is even a badge for Bais Abraham itself. 

Shafner said Gesher, which means “bridge” in Hebrew, is mean to connect Jewish St. Louis to the wider community in the minds of young Jews.

“I think once the word gets out and kids start doing it, they’ll tell other kids and start sharing it on Facebook and then it will really roll,” he said.

Neiss said the missions are merely building blocks of the process.

“There are so many places that are free and accessible so we can really combine this, make it fun, engaging and self-driven,” she said. “We can show them that St. Louis has all these resources available.”

Since the program is just getting underway, organizers said they did not know how many would participate. Neiss thinks 50 to 100 families might register to be a part of the effort.

But it is something we’re hoping grows more widely,” she said. “We’re going to be reaching out to some of the schools. It really is a resource for the whole community. It is something we developed at Bais Abe but we really see as something not unique to the congregation. It is not specifically Orthodox.”

She said more badges might be added in the future and she hopes the program, which is now funded by a Covenant Foundation grant, will continue depending on how many families engage with it.

“It is something that can constantly be evolving as new resources emerge in St. Louis and as new ideas emerge for what topics people want to talk about and what places people want to visit,” she said.

Those interested in the initiative, which is free of charge, can examine the full list of missions and badges online at baisabe.com/gesher.