A new kind of conversion, remembering VJ

Storage room at Young Israel before being turned into a nursing station. 

Ellen Futterman, Editor

Making room

When Rachel Deutsch’s baby started fussing at Yom Kippur services last year, the young mom knew it was time to nurse. The only problem: She didn’t know where to comfortably breastfeed him at her Orthodox shul, Young Israel. 

“I went downstairs to where there is a single-stall bathroom and a chair in front of the toilet,” she recalled. “The baby was crying and fidgety, but it wasn’t the day for me to run home. And it smelled terrible inside the bathroom. I really couldn’t take it.”

She left the bathroom, looked around and spotted an older mom. So she asked the woman for advice and was steered upstairs to a storage closet big enough for her to drag a chair into. She nursed inside the closet.

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“I had my husband keep watch at the door,” said Deutsch, 28. 

When Deutsch and the baby returned to her seat at services, she told her friend, Judith Frankiel, what had happened. 

“I was appalled,” said Frankiel, 27. “Something that’s important to me is making sure women feel they fit in and have comfortable spaces, especially in the Orthodox community.”

So the women put their heads together and went to Young Israel’s Rabbi Moshe Shulman to see whether they could convert the storage closet into a nursing/family room.

“I thought it was a terrific idea,” Shulman said. “We have a cadre of new young families who are having babies, and we definitely want to accommodate them and make them feel welcomed.”

Deutsch and Frankiel said some of the older congregants questioned the need for such a room but didn’t really object or create any barriers. Even better, the women were able to enlist many other young women at the shul to help and, within six weeks or so, the nursing room was completed.

“We used Facebook Marketplace to get items for free or for cheap,” Frankiel said. “Families at the shul donated items and money.”

Deutsch said, “We had a huge volunteer team that painted. All the young women at Young Israel pitched in, and even some of the men helped. It really came together in a hurry.” 

Frankiel jokes that thanks to the tranformation, she is now a pro at using power tools. Deutsch explains the intent was to create a spa-like environment so that nursing moms can feel calm and relaxed.

It appears the women achieved that. The nursing room is adorable and welcoming, with plush chairs, a changing table and kid-friendly art on the walls.

“Our shul is our second home,” Deutsch said. “The men come regularly, but sometimes women stay home because they’re nursing and feel uncomfortable or even embarrassed. And that’s a shame. We want them to come and be part of our services.”

Shulman likes that the room is centrally located, near where social activities at the shul take place. In addition to nursing, it’s been used as an auxiliary room for brises, and more than one toddler has wandered in to play there.

“It’s so user friendly to young families — it really gives off such a positive feeling,” Shulman said. “We had to relocate some of things that (the storage closet) had been used for, but the benefits of this grassroots effort have been enormous.”

Trivia with a purpose

One of the 2019 Unsung Heroes honored by the Jewish Light was Jennifer Rothman Mancuso, who lost her son Vincent Joseph — VJ — to a rare, congenital heart disease shortly before his fourth birthday, nine years ago. Soon after VJ’s death, Mancuso and her husband, Vincent Mancuso, founded a memorial fund in their son’s name not only to keep VJ’s legacy alive, but also to create positive outcomes and to help empower other children and their families. 

Each year since, the VJ Memorial Fund hosts a trivia night, the proceeds of which benefit primarily four organizations: St. Louis Children’s Hospital and its Camp Rhythm, which gives children with heart disease a traditional camp experience; the Rockwood School District Early Childhood Center, where VJ attended; Temple Israel’s religious school; and St. Ambrose School. Both schools are given annual stipends to be used for any educational tools they need, along with scholarships. 

This year’s ninth annual VJ Memorial Fund Trivia Night will take place Sept. 21 at the Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur. The evening features trivia at 7 p.m., a silent auction, raffles, free drinks, Imo’s pizza and free nachos. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tables of eight are available at $200.

Registration is ongoing through Sept 15. Teams can provide payment to the VJ Mancuso Memorial Fund, 1734 Clarkson Road, #101, Chesterfield, 63017, or through PayPal or credit card at www.vjman.org. Sponsorships and donations are also accepted. For more information, call Jennifer Mancuso at 314-956-9556.

Rock on

Jewish Rock Radio has launched a second season of the Jewish Star Talent Search. Jewish teens and young adults  ages 14-26 throughout North America are invited to enter the competition designed to identify emerging talent in the Jewish community. 

Video auditions must be received by Oct. 15. To view the Jewish Star promo video, recommend a contestant and/or audition, go to  jewishrockradio.com/JewishStar. 

The public will be invited to cast votes beginning Nov. 1, and winners will be announced Nov. 25. Six Jewish Star winners will receive a prize package designed to help launch their musical careers, including:

• Private mentorship from a nationally recognized Jewish celebrity recording artist.

• A professional studio session to record an original composition or a cover song from a preapproved list of Jewish music artists.

• International exposure highlighting winners on an exclusive Jewish Rock Radio show. 

An all-expenses-paid trip to attend the 2020 Songleader Bootcamp National Conference (SLBC) for immersive coaching and skills training in February. Prize winners will also be featured and perform live at SLBC. 

The Jewish Star video audition consists of a homemade music video of the contestant singing a song and a written vision statement about affecting the Jewish community through music. A panel of national celebrity music artists will judge the auditions to select the winners based on their vocal, instrumental, overall performance skills and passion for the Jewish world.

Rick Recht, founder and executive director of Jewish Rock Radio, said: “The Jewish Star talent search not only attracts and identifies new, young, Jewish talent but helps to educate the masses about the impact of Jewish artists on Jewish identity and give established Jewish artists the opportunity to step up and support future generations of Jewish artists who will inspire the Jewish world for many years to come.”

News and Schmooze is a weekly column by Editor Ellen Futterman. Email Ellen at: [email protected]thejewishlight.com.