On the road: teenage Jewish communities vary from city to city

By Abigail Miller, Freshman, Ladue Horton Watkins

Many Jewish teens have moved from city to city, and at one time or another, ended up in St. Louis. Such teens are Jake Bergman, 14, Sam Kahn, 14 and Rachel Mitchell, 15. Each has moved once, twice, or even more than three times, and experienced multiple Jewish communities.

Some of these communities had barely any Jews while others boasted much larger Jewish populations. Still, the three teens agree that St. Louis has one of the biggest, most welcoming, Jewish communities each has experienced.

Jake, a freshman at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, moved to St. Louis from Glen Allen, Va. He considers himself a Reform Jew that takes part in Jewish teen activities such as Ladue’s JSU (Jewish Students’ Union) and BBYO.

“More than half my friends are Jewish and the opportunities (for Jewish teen programs) are very large,” he says.

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But Jake wasn’t always this involved in the Jewish community. In Glen Allen, Va., he said “almost none of my friends was Jewish. I was the only Jewish kid in my school.”

Jake has felt very welcome in St. Louis because in Glen Allen, “There was almost nothing Jewish there, while here, it is almost the opposite.”

Another freshman at Ladue, Sam Kahn, was born in Highland Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, then moved to Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, before ending up in finally St. Louis. Sam says in Highland Park, “there are a lot of Jews, enough to close schools on the high holidays.”

In Plano, he said he barely had any Jewish identity. “The fact that I went to Sunday school basically defined me as a Jew,” he said. “I didn’t really contribute or do much for my religion. There were not very many Jewish people at all, a very small percentage of the schools were actually Jewish.”

Sam describes the Jewish community in Plano as being small, restricted, and laid-back. His last year in Plano he was in seventh grade, which is usually the time Jewish teens are invited to many of their friend’s bar and bat mitzvahs. But Sam says that in Plano, “going to a bar/bat mitzvah was a very big deal, since there were less Jews.”

Now in St. Louis, Sam says he has “found that the Jewish community is very important and a big part of society. So far, I have been in youth groups and meetings such as BBYO and JSU at my school. There are a lot of Jews living in the Ladue/St. Louis area going to my school. Compared to the other places I’ve lived, here almost all of my friends are Jewish.”

Finally, for one Jewish girl, moving around is very common. Rachel Mitchell, a Conservative Jew, has lived in England, as well as four different states. Her mom is from England and her dad is from Israel. The first U.S. city that the Mitchells moved to was Albuquerque, N.M. There, the Jewish community was small and predominantly Reform. As a young child, her family attended Chabad of New Mexico and she went to a Reform preschool.

“Not a lot of Jewish people lived there, but they were very accepting and very interested in Judaism,” Rachel said. ” We taught my first grade class how to play dreidel and everyone loved it.”

Next, she moved to Richmond, Va. There, she went to an Orthodox synagogue, and attended religious school.

When asked if there were a lot of Jewish people, Rachel said, “No there wasn’t. And they were not accepting.” She also said that, “the Orthodox community was very welcoming, as was the Reform, but the Conservative community there wasn’t very active. All in all, “I didn’t like it.”

Finally, when Rachel was in fourth grade, she moved to St. Louis. Here she attended Solomon Schechter Day School for two years, along with religious school. She also went to Congregation B’nai Amoona regularly.

She describes the Jewish community here as, “warm, welcoming, active and friendly with many opportunities for teens. People went out of their way to welcome us and made us feel part of the Jewish community.”

This summer Rachel, now a freshman in high school, moved to Dallas, Texas. She attends BBYO regularly and says that there are a lot of Jews in Dallas. Out of all the friends she’s made so far, about a third of them are Jewish.

“People go out of their way to be welcoming. For example, we went to a synagogue once before Rosh Hashanah and the Rabbi called us and made sure we had places to go. A woman we met once at a synagogue invited us to her house for Rosh Hashanah dinner. A family we had never met hear we were new to town and invited us to their house for Rosh Hashanah lunch.”

She says that she has felt as welcome in Dallas as she did in St. Louis.

Jake, Sam and Rachel know a lot about Jewish communities; which are big and active, and which are small and uninviting. They all agree that St. Louis has large Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities, and each is welcoming.