Young Jews bring davening, song wherever they go

Members of Ashreinu, an egalitarian spiritual community that has been meeting for more than a year,  sing nigunim (wordless melodies) at the Jewish Mystic Jam in January at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur. Photo: Eric Berger

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

“Happy are we! How goodly is our portion, and how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful our heritage!”

 — Translation of the Shabbat Ashrei song

 As the dusk settles into darkness and the temperature drops on a recent winter night, about 25 people climb a stairway to an upstairs apartment in south St. Louis. They greet each other with smiles, hugs and warm words and then begin singing the songs of Kabbalat Shabbat.

Tasha Kaminsky and Caroline Kessler, the founders of this growing spiritual community, have invited the group for davening and dinner.

“Expect lots of singing, a vegetarian feast and Shabbos joy,” the invitation email said. “All are welcome!”

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Some faces were familiar and others new as the guests entered Kaminsky’s second-floor apartment on a street off South Grand Boulevard in the Tower Grove South neighborhood.

About three times a month for more than a year, Kaminsky and Kessler, both in their 20s, have met with a group of people to pray, study, sing and enjoy their special sense of community. They call their group Ashreinu, which may be translated from Hebrew as “blessed are we.”  It’s an egalitarian, traditional, spiritual community — or kehillah — that fosters a kind of Jewish kumbayah. The gatherings take place in member’s homes. 

“Ashreinugathers for spirited davening, inspired learning and creative ritual,” its website says. “We are steeped in tradition, based in St. Louis and committed to building a collaborative, spiritual community.”

Those who take part in the peer-led events describe Ashreinu gatherings as “organic” with lots of energy, laughter, closeness and spirituality.

“We selected the name Ashreinubecause we wanted to evoke a feeling of joy and have a Hebrew name that was evocative and easy to pronounce,” Kessler said. 


Creating a city-based community

The co-founders’ overriding dream is to rebuild a Jewish spiritual community in south St. Louis and perhaps one day a community space to gather. Ashreinu has no synagogue building. A century ago, Jews populated south side neighborhoods, attending traditional shuls as well as B’nai El Congregation, a Reform congregation for most of its 165 years that met from 1906 to 1930 at Spring and Flad avenues.

Several Ashreinu members are involved with the Jewish Neighborhood Center Project, which is seeking to acquire a space for South City Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. They’re looking at a vacant synagogue building on Blaine Avenue near Tower Grove Avenue. The planning committee includes Kaminsky and Kessler, Ashreinu regulars Paul Sorenson, Katie Garland, Andrew Warshauer, Shira Berkowitz and Nava Kantor. 

Kantor, 26, a South City resident and social worker at Missouri Foundation for Health, says, “I love Ashreinubecause it’s a community of people who love Judaism and really find meaning in Jewish ritual and communal singing like I do.”

It’s “a wonderful balance of spiritual growth, intellectual stimulation and community building,” Kantor says. “And I love that it’s committed to the city of St. Louis where I live and where there’s not a ton of other Jewish things happening.”

Even though Ashreinu’sbase is the city, the community welcomes Jews from throughout the St. Louis area.


The joy of song 

A distinctive characteristic of Ashreinu is a love of song or nigunim, Hebrew wordless melodies. Around Thanksgiving, the Ashreinu community met at an apartment in the Grove neighborhood to “revel in the blessings and bounty” at a Nigun Collective: Gratitude Edition.” They sang, learned and meditated.

Kessler says that nigunim events, which she first experienced in California, are a way people can collectively “lift up our voices in hopefulness and gratitude in this dark time.”


Getting started

Ashreinu’s energy, enthusiasm and intellectualism mirror that of Kaminsky and Kessler, who met over coffee after an email introduction by a mutual friend.

While Kol Rinah is Kaminsky’s congregation home, she says she also wanted a small spiritual community with kavanah, intense devotion from the heart.

Inclusion is important to both women.

“Regardless of your Jewish background, your sexual orientation, your gender, race or socio-economic status, we want you to know that we’re excited for you to be here,” Kaminsky said.

Kaminsky, 28, is development director for the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and southern Illinois. After studying creative writing and religion at college in Florida, where she grew up, she earned a master’s degree at Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Judaic studies.

Kessler, 26, from the Baltimore area, is pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at Washington University after studying creative writing and religion at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In between, she lived in the San Francisco Bay area, working at nonprofits and writing.

In Berkeley, she joined that community’s first Nigun Collective, founded by Nat Rosenzweig, who now lives in Brooklyn.

Kessler said her diverse Jewish experiences in the Bay Area, vastly different from her Reform upbringing, inspired her to look for similar experiences when she arrived in St. Louis in August 2015.

The first Ashreinugathering, in November 2015, was at Next Dor, a house of Jewish young professionals in the Central West End. About 25 people joined in peer-led davening and a vegetarian potluck.


Prayer, tradition and nigun

Ashreinu, while nondenominational, is mostly a mix of Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism.

Kol Rinah is Ashreinu’s financial sponsor. Ashreinu also receives support from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Moishe House Without Walls.  The group uses Lev Shalem prayer books donated by Kol Rinah.

But Ashreinu also is open to new and creative forms of spirituality.

After the November election, Ashreinu held a healing service at Ritz Park, tucked behind a stretch of Asian and other ethnic restaurants along South Grand Boulevard.

Participants, mainly in their 20s and 30s, formed a prayer circle and sat cross-legged on the ground. They prayed and chanted songs around a Star of David made with candles that flickered in the night. One Ashreinumember taught the group a song she had learned about building a new society.

Ashreinucelebrated its first birthday in November at the home of Kol Rinah Rabbi Noah Arnow and his wife, Tammy Arnow. Tammy Arnow baked braided challahs and chocolate chip cookies, and guests brought platters of everything from hummus and Israeli foods to kugel. 

While most services are peer-led, some in the wider Ashreinu community are rabbis, and some members also belong to congregations.

Sherri Frank Weintrop, who brought salmon with brown sugar and pistachios, is a friend of Kaminsky and Kaminsky’s mom, Enid Perll.

“Tasha invited me to Ashreinu’s Selichot program in late September, and I was hooked,” said Weintrop, 57. “I feel hopeful about our future and feel renewed when I am with this community of young, spirited Jews. I love that they are happy to have this oldie join them in prayer and study.” 

Adding to the intergenerational mix, 50-somethings Sue and Marc Lapp of Olivette got their daughter Emma, 23, involved.  Daniel Buchalter, 35, of University City, brought his baby Sam.

Koach Baruch (KB) Frazier, 39, lives in the Central West End and is chief audiologist at the Center for Hearing & Speech. Active at Central Reform Congregation, he holds a special place in his heart for Ashreinu, which he says is embracing of his and other’s diversity.  

“It’s a community,” says Frazier, who brought a djembe drum to the event at Ritz Park. “It’s fulfilling. I love the davening and the Nigun Collective.”