Going outside synagogue walls to engage Jewish young adults

Ellen Futterman, Editor

When Karen Bernstein moved to St. Louis four-plus years ago to take a job with Teach for America, she hoped to find some sort of Jewish spiritual engagement here. She had grown up in Charlotte, N.C. where the Jewish community is small and tightly-knit, and had been deeply involved in Jewish activities, be it going to Hebrew school as a kid or holding a statewide office in BBYO as a teenager or singing in a Jewish a cappella group as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“A single day didn’t go by without me doing something Jewish,” says Bernstein, 27, who now lives in University City.

Like a lot of twenty and thirty-somethings, Bernstein didn’t feel the need to join a synagogue yet. “I really was more interested in connecting spiritually to people at the same point in their lives as me,” she explains.

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“There are a lot of Jewish organizations like Next Dor and Moishe House that are geared toward being social. What I wanted was something deeper so I could connect on a different plane.”

Bernstein, who now works for Inspire STL, a non-profit that helps high potential low-income students attend elite public and private high schools, says she eventually found what she was looking for in B’Yachad (“together” in Hebrew), a spiritual experience for young adult Jews. Begun last December, the group welcomes Shabbat together in creative, “non-traditional” venues in parts of St. Louis that are popular with young adults. The idea is to build community and be as inclusive as possible while providing a meaningful Jewish spiritual experience.

Championing B’Yachad are Rabbis Jonah Zinn of Congregation Shaare Emeth and Deana Sussman of Central Reform Congregation. “I kept hearing about the lack of spiritual opportunities from young people who were looking for a different, but meaningful, Shabbat worship experience that fit into their lives,” says Zinn. “I approached Deana, who was hearing the same thing, and we started talking.”

The two partnered with Nate Rosenblum, Jewish Federation’s senior associate for community development and formed a committee of young adults to spearhead the initiative. Out of that group, B’Yachad came to be, hosting its first Shabbat experience in December at Tech Arista, a shared workplace for startups and entrepreneurs in the Central West End. The second installment was in January at The Chapel, a nonprofit music venue, performance space and art gallery in Clayton. And the third one is slated for March 20, also at The Chapel, 6328 Alexander Drive.

“What we have found is that (B’Yachad) draws a cross section of young adults, from grad students to young professionals, who are in a period of searching, experimenting, looking for other types of spiritual experiences,” says Zinn. “This is really about meeting people where they are at this point in their lives. It’s about creating a more vibrant Jewish community in St. Louis with more opportunities for young adults, and bringing people together with shared interests.”

The evening typically starts at 7 p.m. with an hour-long Shabbat service that includes traditional and modern elements, English and Hebrew readings, music and an interactive Torah portion, followed by a free, communal meal. The vegetarian menu features a different ethnic food; the first one was Afghani, the second one Thai. Funding comes from Shaare Emeth, CRC and the Federation. Between 50 and 60 people have attended each of the evenings thus far.

“I’ve definitely made some friends from the group,” says Bernstein. “St. Louis can be an intimidating place if you didn’t grow up here or go to college here. B’Yachad has offered me a way to build a Jewish life for myself with people my age looking for a similar type of spiritual experience.”

For more information about B’Yachad, visit facebook.com/byachadstl.


Music for the soul

They say to write what you know. Miriam Raziel Schwartz-Kanani, who goes by Miriam Raziel professionally, believes the adage applies to composing songs as well. Her debut CD “Light Warrior” was inspired by music she grew up loving and is passionate about, blending reggae, jazz and Middle Eastern styles with Jewish spirituality.

“I didn’t feel as if it had to be one genre,” says Raziel, who grew up in St. Louis but now lives in Berkeley, California. “I kept recording each song and each one was very different. The next thing I knew I had five genres in one CD. 

“The response to it has been amazing. When you are singing with your heart open and it’s music you love, people connect to that.”

Perhaps her biggest cheerleaders are her parents, Tsila and Howard Schwartz. Tsila is a native of Israel and Howard is a Jewish scholar and professor emeritus at University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Raziel, 30, graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School and the New College of Florida. She went to Israel her junior year to study at Hebrew University, which she says, “was my opening to Jewish spirituality.” 

After college she returned to Israel for three more years, attending Ben-Gurion University and working for Jerusalem Peacemakers, a network of independent interfaith peace-builders. She wound up meeting her husband-to-be in Israel, then re-meeting him in a more serious way in New York. They married several years ago and now live in California, where he is a doctor and she is a Jewish educator.

Raziel attended and performed at the Songleader Boot Camp at the Jewish Community Center here in February, which she described as “absolutely amazing.”

“I was first at the conference five years ago and there were maybe 40 people,” she says. “This time, there were 300 and the programs were so dynamic.”

Interestingly, Raziel says her favorite memory of St. Louis is at the JCC, where she spent “summers in the outdoor pool every single day and eating sno-cones.”

While “Light Warrior” represents her first solo effort, she and Rabbi James Stone Goodman worked on a CD about six years ago, which they distributed among friends. Raziel plans to come to St. Louis to perform this fall at both Central Reform Congregation and Neve Shalom, where Goodman is spiritual leader.

Those interested in downloading Raziel’s music or purchasing a CD can do so at miriamraziel.com.


LoopdeLoop

Did you ever commit to do something then wonder what you got yourself into?

Welcome to my life. 

This Saturday night, March 7, yours truly will be the emcee at J Associates’ annual “Dancing in the Loop” fundraiser at the Pageant. Other than pretending to host my own talk show as a child — and play all the guests — I have no experience as an emcee. Am I nervous? Well, let’s just say that’s where you all come in.

I need my peeps around me. So if you’re available to be in the audience and support me in this endeavor, I would be greatly appreciative. Tickets are $125, which include dinner catered by Tavalo V starting at 6:30 p.m. and a dance competition at 8 featuring local Jewish movers-and-shakers (note the pun) paired with professional dancers from Simply Ballroom. There’s also me, narrating the action. Proceeds from the evening go to scholarships and other program needs at the JCC.

The more friendly faces in the audience the better. If you are interested, call Lisa Vento at 314-442-3162 for tickets.