Olive Groove connects Jews, community with food, fun

Jewish Federation  President/CEO Andrew Rehfeld (right) talks with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay (center) and former Federation head Barry Rosenberg during the ‘Get in the Olive Groove’ community block party last week. 

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Teenager Adam Cohen and his mother, Golda Mantinband Cohen, weren’t sure what to expect at the “Get in the Olive Groove” Jewish community block party at the Public Media Commons in Grand Center last week.

After exploring the food offerings and booths and rocking to the music, Adam summed up what it was: “It’s awesome in the truest sense of the word. I love it. It’s the Jewish community coming together.”

That’s just the kind of reaction that organizers of Olive (for Olive Street) Groove hoped to hear, especially from young people like Adam, a senior at Parkway Central High School.

The event Sept. 3, which drew hundreds of people of all ages on a clear but very warm Thursday night, was paired with of the 114th annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. More than 300 people RSVP’d to attend the formal board meeting inside the Nine Network offices at 3665 Olive Street. 

More than 600 people RSVP’d for the party on the outdoor commons.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

The first-of-its-kind Jewish Federation block party was intended to build community and show that the Federation is relevant to groups with diverse interests, including young Jewish people.

“We want to show people who we are and what it means to be part of a vibrant Jewish community,” said Andrew Rehfeld, Federation president and CEO, who praised former Federation development head Debbie Chase for coming up with the idea of tying the party to the annual meeting, and Nancy Tully and her marketing team for making it happen.“(Only in a community) can we be stronger than we can be as individuals.”  

Because more young Jewish people are living east of Lindbergh Boulevard and in the city of St. Louis, the Federation decided to hold its annual meeting in the city, Rehfeld said. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay attended and mingled with the crowd.

Business first

At the board meeting (see related story on opposite page), Rehfeld reviewed the year’s successes and described Federation as a “community development organization” dedicated to preserving and enhancing Jewish life in the St. Louis area, Israel and across the world. He said the recent St. Louis Jewish community demographic study, the first in 20 years, would help assess unmet needs and plan responses.

Patty F. Croughan, the outgoing board chair who served for the past two years, said the study identified the needs of an increasing number of isolated seniors; the 24 percent of local Jewish households that cannot make ends meet, some of which are experiencing food insecurity; a surge in intermarried households; and Jews who do not feel connected to Jewish institutions or the community.

She said the Jewish community is sometimes brought together by tragedy, such as the murder of four Israeli teens. 

But, she added, “Tonight is a joyful gathering as we celebrate the work and contributions of the agencies and synagogues and programs, the people, who together serve our Jewish community.”

Harvey N. Wallace was elected chairman for the next two years, and the board elected directors, trustees and other officers. Wallace, managing partner of Brown Smith Wallace, a CPA firm, has served as vice president of the Federation annual campaign and on many Jewish agency and lay boards.

Because of the night’s “olive” theme, Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth, who gave the invocation, said: “I want to suggest that our community, like an olive tree, is a reminder of …resilience through all times, but even more, that just as the olive branch has become a symbol of peace, so, too, ought we work for peace, justice and blessing for all.”

Back at the Groove

Outside on the Public Media Commons, Circus Harmony wowed the crowd with acrobatics, juggling, unicycling and chair balancing. Party guests were handed passports that they could get stamped at any of more than 40 booths and tables set up by organizations, agencies and congregations. Singing sisters Bella & Lily and the Brothers Lazaroff band, St. Louis Circle of Jewish Music and Covenant Place Chorale filled the Commons with music.

“It’s very nice to feel we have a strong Jewish presence in the St. Louis community and the region,” said Linda Steinger, who is married to Rabbi Lane Steinger of the Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community. She and Mindy Keyser greeted people at the congregation’s booth. 

Rabbi Hershey Novack and Chana Novack, co-directors of Chabad on Campus at Washington University, brought their four children to the party.

“It’s very cool — and it’s very delicious — and I really like that there’s something for all ages,” said their daughter Mushka, a student at Epstein Hebrew Academy who turned 13 over the weekend.

Mushka also liked the “very creative” booths, including Chabad’s, where people were asked to taste matzoh and gefilte fish balls and try to tell the difference.

Younger children enjoyed coloring, playing and looking at PJ Library books at the Children’s Corner. Lilly Scharff, an at-large representative to the Jewish Community Relations Council, helped her daughter Hattie carry a giant yellow balloon octopus made by a balloon artist. Hattie was taking in all the sights and sounds and enjoying ice cream.

“It’s an atmosphere of excitement for everyone,” her mother said.

Some seniors, including Marian Berin and Nan Thomas, were part of the enthusiastic Covenant Place Chorale. They were thrilled to open their show with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and they sang a medley of Irving Berlin songs. Libby Sorkin Routman kept busy helping at the booth for the Federation’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) program.

The night was all about “connecting.”

Becca Near and her husband, Seth, young newlyweds, enjoyed “playing Jewish geography” with people at the party, said Becca, who works for the American Jewish Committee.

Jill Mogil, who over the years has volunteered for various Jewish organizations and is a trustee of the Jewish Light, marveled at the large number of institutions represented at the event. 

“I had such a good time,” she said later. “It was wonderful that Jews of all affiliations were together. And the food was kosher and tasty.”

Crowds lined up at Milt’s BBQ food truck from Chicago, and savored food from Taste of Jerusalem, Kohn’s Kosher Deli of St. Louis, CatererJon Rubin and Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt.

“It was a nice idea to do something different this year,” said Gail Wechsler, director of domestic issues and social justice at the Jewish Community Relations Council. “People look like they’re having a lot of fun, mingling and seeing old friends.”

At the end, Rehfield handed out door prizes, including a trip to Israel.

Then he wished everyone a “Shanah Tovah!”