The Lighter Side: Q&A with Shira Berkowitz, leader of MaTovu, PROMO

Shira+Berkowitz+is++president+of+the+board+of+MaTovu+and+co-director+of+PROMO.

Shira Berkowitz is president of the board of MaTovu and co-director of PROMO.

Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Shira Berkowitz serves as president of the board of MaTovu, an inclusive Jewish space in the Botanical Heights neighborhood, and as co-director of PROMO, a Missouri organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality.

Can you describe what you do at MaTovu?

I’m the president of the board of MaTovu. We’re a volunteer-founded, currently volunteer-driven vibrant, diverse, and open St. Louis Jewish community that aims to be deeply connected to our neighbors, and actively grapples with important and complex issues relevant to who and where we are now.

MaTovu creates programming in our historically renovated South City building, and expansively within that community, to increase the connectivity between the lives of residents and Judaism.

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Since you were a founder of the organization, what were you hoping it would add to the Jewish community?

The gap of Jewish infrastructure in the City of St. Louis was posing a difficultly in distance from the perspective of where my life was centered physically and the location of opportunities to connect with the built Jewish community. The team at MaTovu began by meeting each other collectively in pop-up Jewish spaces, and recognizing our shared interest of participating Jewishly in our own neighborhoods. Our connections grew as we all brought to the table the uniqueness of showing up Jewishly in the activism and advocacy central to our vocational/ advocational lives.

We ached for MaTovu to be a place that could bridge these gaps for us, namely to have a place where we could engage Jewishly in our lives within the distances that we lived. Additionally, we take notice of the conversations that are intrinsic to us, and the silence around those conversations in the Jewish community. We wanted MaTovu to be a place that was unafraid to approach difficult topics; to create meaningful relationships with people of all faiths and backgrounds; to be a true neighborhood center (a place centering the importance of being a neighbor; open to all), and to be a place of its name-sake.

The name of our space, MaTovu, comes from the only prayer in the Jewish liturgical tradition crafted by a non-Jew. The story goes that a wicked prophet named Balaam was supposed to curse the Jews in the desert but instead, overcome with awe at the sight of folks gathered together, felt compelled to bless them instead.

Commenting on the verse, and noticing the strange construction of the word “MaTovu” in Hebrew, Sforno, a medieval Jewish Italian biblical commentator suggests that it’s rendered that way, “because the existence of these Jewish spaces of learning and gathering, are not only of benefit to the people who are in them, but that they also are good in a transitive sense, that is that their very existence is of benefit to all.”

And yeah, we see a lot of truth in this 500-year-old teaching.

How has the pandemic affected the organization?

As volunteers, the pandemic decreased our capacity to meet community and safety needs, thus we closed our physical doors and opened our virtual ones. The pandemic created opportunities for our board to dive into our development and create the dedicated time to move us into a sustainable organization, beyond our start-up phase. It also gave us an opportunity to engage creatively with our community — to determine what programming felt most necessary and connective in an over-saturated moment of online content. Through it, we were able to meaningfully engage with challenging topics (like the ethical and moral dilemmas living in this pandemic surfaced, mental health challenges of being an isolated population, or asking our communal selves ‘What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?’) as well as build in time to draw and make music together.

What are some of the events/ plans at MaTovu that you are most excited about?

MaTovu just reopened our doors during Sukkot and created opportunities to gather in person. I’m most excited about the shift in how people are choosing when and how to show up, and how to bring their full selves into the spaces they show-up in. We partnered with the Center for the Great Turning and brought together a sincerely dedicated group of people interested in facilitating and taking part in men’s healing work. It was an interracial, multi-ethnic, intergenerational, multi-gender group of people that often don’t share intentional space together. The immersive weekend has ignited some energy in our community for further collaboration, exploration, and intentional healing that I’m excited to see how it unfolds in the future.

Since you’re also a co-director at PROMO, what are your top goals at that organization?

At PROMO, we are currently focused around developing a new organizational strategy and framework that aids us in ensuring community voices are centered in our work and approach. As such, our goals are to build a vibrant strategy that centers the needs of creating lived-equity for all LGBTQ Missourians in our state. While we build, we are headed towards an extremely difficult anti-LGBTQ (and anti-transgender youth) legislative session, as we see currently happening in our country, and ensuring we do not allow harmful and detrimental policy to pass is another crucial goal.

What do you do for self-care, when you need a break from work, family and friends and just want to recharge? 

I try to get out and ride bikes as much as possible these days. We’re in [cyclo-cross] season, and racing with friends, being surrounded by a community of friends, is some of the best self-care there is.

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