Next Gen effort finds home in Central West End


Yoni Sarason isn’t your average tenant. For one thing, he pays no rent. For another, he has friends over — frequently and often in large numbers. For most property owners that would be a decidedly undesirable arrangement but Sarason’s landlords don’t really mind.

Actually, it’s the reason they invited him to live there in the first place.

“We’re hoping to create a vibrant culture that will be open to the post-college demographic, students, professionals, artists, activists,” said the affable Sarason, whose day job is director of client development for a technology-focused consulting company. “What we’d really like to see happen is for the house to become a focal point for Jewish young adult life.”

It’s all part of the unique role the 25-year-old is playing in helping to pump new blood into an old house on Waterman Boulevard and with it — he hopes — the local Jewish community at large. Sarason heads up Next Dor, a program designed to give Jewish 20- and-early 30-somethings a venue to study, hold events, socialize or just hang out. Dor is Hebrew for generation.

Sarason said the idea grew out of conversations between himself and Central Reform Congregation’s Rabbi Susan Talve as they discussed possible uses for an empty building abutting the parking lot of CRC. Purchased by the temple around 2002, the century-old, three-story residence was originally intended for educational classes or other synagogue functions but the floor plan proved unsuitable. CRC briefly rented out the structure, but it soon went vacant, remaining that way for about three years during which time it fell prey to a corrosive combination of thieves and vandals.

“It quite literally had been trashed,” Sarason said. “Someone had come in and ripped out all the copper. A lot of the plumbing had been totally destroyed. It was just really a mess.”

Talve requested Sarason put together a proposal, which was submitted to Synagogue 3000, a national program designed to reinvigorate congregational life. Sarason’s plan drew enough attention to garner a $40,000 grant from the group to get the house back into shape. An eight-person board of young adults was assembled, Sarason moved in to take care of the property and the project got rolling.

Next Dor appealed to the temple on a number of levels – history being an intangible but important one.

“It’s just what CRC did so long ago,” Talve said. “We just had this amazing good fortune to have an incubator and be able to envision something new for our generation. I think the most important thing we can do is help provide that for the next generation and let them imagine what their Jewish life is going to look like.”

“It’s been very exciting for me to see it really happening.”

Exciting — and expensive. Synagogue 3000’s grant was only the beginning. In total, more than quarter million dollars has been put into repairs with tens of thousands more, mainly in roofing and landscaping, still yet to happen. Donations have poured in from the community but Talve estimates that about $100,000 is left to be raised. All in all, it took about 18 weeks of repairs to get the facility in usable shape for its first event in November. It was no easy task.

“We basically rebuilt the house,” said Michael Staenberg. “It was a complete renovation.”

In addition to being a donor, Staenberg, a noted community philanthropist, president of THF Realty, and a Jewish Light trustee, also helped to get the work done at cost. He feels the program is an important one for the post-college St. Louis Jewish community.

“It’s huge because after kids go to Hillel and want to stay in St. Louis, there’s really no place for them to gather,” he said. “This allows them to have a place to hang out and get to know each other.”

Roland Roth sees the same issue.

“Next Dor is all about finding people where they are comfortable and gently bringing them in,” said Roth, director of programming for Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel. “The research has shown that this demographic is looking to connect to the Jewish community but not through a synagogue. They’d rather connect on a more personal, individual, home-based level.”

Roth runs Third Fridays, a monthly Shabbat dinner for area young people. It’s a program he started in Seattle in 2003, moved to Delaware in 2005 and brought to St. Louis when he arrived here a few months ago. He said the dinner averages about 20 to 25 participants a month.

In December, he hosted the event at the Next Dor house for the first time and 43 attended — his best turnout ever.

“I think it drew so many people not because of the house but because of Yoni,” Roth said, calling Sarason a “fantastic asset to the community.” “He is really connected and could say to people, ‘Hey, there’s this program coming to Next Dor,’ and people would really respond.”

Sara Weiner, who has attended several events at the house, echoed those sentiments as well. She said Sarason and Next Dor are truly providing something new to the city’s cultural landscape.

“It’s about making connections and just getting to know good young Jewish people in the area,” said Weiner, 25. “There are things to do for young people in St. Louis but this is just another piece that makes this community special.”

The food’s not bad either.

“It’s always dinners,” she joked. “They feed us very well.”

But there’s more to it than that. Weiner was among 10 or so who attended a recent discussion at the house by Jewish Federation Executive Vice President Barry Rosenberg. Others that have hosted events at the house have included state Rep. Jake Zimmerman and JGrads. Sarason said possibilities for future endeavors run the gambit from art shows to yoga instruction. Meanwhile, a library is set to take shape on the third floor.

“It’s really limited only by what people are interested in,” he said. “We’re planning an organic garden in the backyard. We have a number of people who are interested in doing baking classes. We’re even going to try a hummus cook-off.”

So far Sarason said that the house has logged more than 150 visits from 78 different individuals. There are no regular fees except as event expenses may demand, nor is there any membership cards or dues. That lack of formality is intentional.

“It’s kind of a turnoff for young adults,” Sarason said. “What we don’t want to do is foster a sense of in-crowd/out-crowd. We really want to make the bar non-existent for people to just come in and feel like they are a part of it.”

Much like Staenberg and Sarason, Brian Millner, a board member for the group, definitely sees the next generation putting down roots as the eventual result.

“As a short-term goal, I think we’re working to bring the existing young professional Jewish community together for a multitude of events to allow them to experience a new form of community and give them a new outlet and resource for creativity,” said Millner, 24. “In the longer term, we’re hoping to give college seniors and recent college grads a reason to return to or stay in St. Louis because there is a thriving, active Jewish population in the young professionals sector.”

Though much of the funding is temporarily running through CRC and the temple still owns the house itself, they don’t run the operation. A memorandum of understanding signed early on clearly spelled out the situation.

“This is not a CRC program,” said John Terranova, CRC’s executive director. “It’s a community program. We simply are providing space to the group. They are managing and coordinating their programming. They are responsible for reaching out to others.”

That’s an important point since it makes clear the wishes of both the temple and Next Dor’s leadership that the effort is not rooted in a single synagogue but is open to everyone.

“The big picture is that we are trying to create a renaissance of sorts for Jewish young adults in St. Louis,” Sarason said.

For more information on Next Dor, call 314-632-6398 or visit