Local Jewish center receives national award for ‘Applied Jewish Wisdom’

MaTovu, a Jewish center located in the Botanical Heights neighborhood in south St. Louis, is one of the recipients of this year’s Lippman-Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom. Photo: Eric Berger 

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

MaTovu, the recently-opened Jewish center in the Botanical Heights neighborhood, has received a $15,000 prize from a national foundation to help realize its plans for events on three Jewish holidays. 

MaTovu was one of seven organizations nationally chosen for the 2018-19 Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom. The winners were announced last week at the Jewish Funders Network Conference in San Francisco. The prize “elevates innovative applications of particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions,”   according to a news release, and this year was focused on democracy and civic engagement.

MaTovu, which a group of Jewish millennials opened last year in a former synagogue and church (4200 Blaine Ave.), will host a series of programs connected to the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The money from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah will help fund those events.

The goal of Three Occasions: Shalosh Regalim for Civic Engagement is to share the “rituals, teachings and traditions that are implicit in the three pilgrimage holidays” with local Jews and the broader St. Louis community and “actively engage in social change for the betterment of the region,” said MaTovu board member Russel Neiss. 

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On Shavuot, the Jewish harvest festival in which there is a tradition to stay up all night learning Torah, the center will host a Take Back the Night walk against gender violence and a study session on “issues of power in the community,” Neiss said. 

On Sukkot, the organization aims to bring people from around St. Louis — Jewish and non-Jewish — together to build a sukkah “where they can share meals and live and study for the week long holiday,” MaTovu stated in its award application. “The sukkah will serve as a communal hub for classes and conversations about racial equity, advocating for policy and systems changes, and deep study of Jewish texts.”

And on Passover, the center will host a seder centered around civic engagement. It will be “interfaith gathering focusing on the contemporary struggle for human liberation with a particular eye to criminal justice reform in the St. Louis region,” the organization stated in the application. 

The center plans to kickoff the series with Sukkot in October and conclude with Shavuot in 2020, but Neiss said, “We don’t want these to just be one-off events. At its core, the Three Occasions program is an extension of the broader mission of MaTovu to provide a mix of cultural, spiritual and educational programs…. 

“In biblical times, the three pilgrimage holidays were seen as an essential and transformative experience for the individual and community, but they weren’t alone sufficient for fulfilling the other spiritual, ethical or communal responsibilities for the rest of the year.”

The foundation did not set restrictions on the grant but the money will be used for the event and other “work at MaTovu along the same vein,” Neiss said.

MaTovu also hopes to receive matching funds and hire a staff member to run the programs.