Six-day ‘Festival of Jewish Life’ planned

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

From Torah Yoga sessions to lessons on plants of the Bible to a poetry slam, a new Jewish cultural education effort is set to roll out at the end of this month that sponsors hope will revitalize a longtime Judaic learning program.

The Festival of Jewish Life will debut at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29 with a Havdalah and Euro-style coffeehouse featuring entertainment provided by Rabbi James Stone Goodman and his music group. They will kick off the six-day event, a joint effort of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association (SLRA), the Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE) and the Jewish Community Center (JCC).

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“It’s a really creative approach to community education,” Goodman said. “I just hope people take advantage of it.”

The effort is a revamp of the Adult Institute offered each fall by the SLRA and CAJE. The institute, which focused on rabbi-directed learning experiences, was largely successful, said Rabbi Brad Horwitz, president of the SLRA. However, declining attendance created the sense that more could be done with the half-century old initiative.

“This is a totally new format, new teachings,” Horwitz said. “It’s not just the rabbis who are part of our program. We’re also opening it up to Jewish artists and experts on various subjects.”

The JCC, where Horwitz also serves as director of the Helene Mirowitz Center of Jewish Community Life, became involved.

“We’re really trying to incorporate the arts specifically as something that we haven’t done before,” he said. “There’s going to be Jewish crafts, like mezuzah making, or making a challah cover. There are going to be tours of sites in St. Louis that have a Jewish connection.”

Those sites will include a tour of the local mikvah, a trip to the St. Louis Art Museum to explore Jewish works, and an excursion to the Missouri Botanical Garden to examine plants such as dates, palms and citrons.

Other events of note will include a showing of “Europa, Europa” at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, a talk on Jewish mystical tales, and an exploration of the Torah through contemporary art. The Jewish State figures prominently in the schedules with sessions on Israeli cuisine, dancing and wine-tasting as well as lessons in Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defense technique.

The final four days will each open with a “Bringing Blessing into Your Life” Beit Midrash led by either a local rabbi or cantor.

Festivities will draw to a close on the evening of Feb. 3 with a performance and sing-along by the Circle of Music and Shir Ami. Goodman said the new format was an attempt to break away from the more traditional purely rabbinic-led classes that characterized the Adult Institute.

“What we wanted to do was expand the offerings that we gave so that we weren’t just drawing on rabbis but on all of the talent of the community,” said Goodman, rabbi at Congregation Neve Shalom and education chair of SLRA, “doing things in a different way and bringing more kinds of teaching into the event than just lecture.”

Horwitz said it wasn’t a discontinuation of the mission of the Adult Institute but a new way of expanding and presenting the material.

“It was more classroom-based learning taught by rabbis,” he said. “We’ll still have some components of that but really we’re trying to break the model and create something different.”

Horwitz said that the event was even being promoted in a new way. A website has been created.

“That’s another new thing we haven’t done before that we’re really excited about,” he said. “We want to think about new ways to market, tell people what we are doing and get them excited about it.”

Tickets are $5 for most events. Additional materials costs may apply. The HMLC film is free. Series tickets are available for $20. Most programs take place at the Staenberg Family Complex of the JCC.

“We’re hoping that if the community responds and people are excited and interested in this we can make it an annual event,” Horwitz said. “Every year it could grow as we offer new and different Jewish learning and cultural experiences.”

How is the response so far?

“It’s really too early to tell but everybody who has seen it has been like ‘Wow, this is something new and innovative. I’m definitely going to try and participate.’ So the buzz is good.”

Horwitz said the Adult Institute’s future remains undecided.

“We may decide one day to bring it back but in the format it existed in over the last five or seven years it just dramatically decreased so we decided it was time to try something new,” he said.

“This is a good example of how our community can really work together to create some new exciting, innovative Jewish programming that can engage people from all different backgrounds and interests in Jewish life,” he added. “I think it will be a fun and educational experience for everyone.”

Festival of Jewish Life

When: Saturday, Jan. 29- Thursday, Feb. 3

Where: Most programs take place at the Staenberg Family Complex of the JCC, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur

How much: $5 for most events; $20 for series pass

More info: or call Cyndee Levy at 314-442-3754 or Sara Winkelman at 314-442-3268. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 314-442-3771.