Entrepreneurial vision key to building vibrant future for Jewish community

By Heschel Raskas

Thanks to our Jewish Federation, the St. Louis Jewish community now has the results of its first demographic study in 20 years. Public meetings have been held to share the results. Key findings have been summarized in the Jewish Light. In the coming months, deeper analyses of the data will take place in order to better understand our Jewish community in 2015. 

Yet this entire study is only valuable if we use it to identify key objectives that will increase the vibrancy in our Jewish community and then act to achieve those objectives. 

I would like to suggest one initiative that I believe is essential to achieving these milestones: grass-roots innovation and entrepreneurship in the Jewish community.

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To better understand the possibilities, we need to look at what is happening in the greater metropolitan St Louis community.  We all know that the local economy needs a growth spurt, and entrepreneurship is key to that growth.  We also know that the great companies that lead our community today began as entrepreneurial initiatives years ago, be it Enterprise Leasing, Express Scripts or Monsanto, to name a few.  

In recent years, entrepreneurship has blossomed in St. Louis. Focused efforts in biotechnology and plant science under the umbrella organization BioStl (biostl.org) have fostered many new startups. ITEN (itenstl.org) and its affiliated entities have nurtured many information-technology ventures. Incubators for earlystage companies have increased and expanded. 

Downtown, T-Rex, in the former Lammert’s building, is a hub for IT ventures. The Cortex district on Forest Park Avenue has two active incubators and is rapidly expanding. Near the Danforth Plant Science Center, BRDG Park and the Helix Center are vibrant sites for new ventures.

Investors in startups have multiplied, as the city, county, and Regional Chamber and Growth Association work to foster entrepreneurships. We believe that some of these young ventures will become great St. Louis companies.

How do these initiatives relate to what the Jewish community should do going forward? I suggest our Jewish Federation convene a series of forums on needs that are identified by the new demographic data. Let’s invite everyone who has a passion for a topic, be it helping the poor in the Jewish community or invigorating Jewish education. From those discussions, let’s find entrepreneurs and leaders who want to achieve those objectives. Let them propose, design and organize startup ventures for a more vibrant Jewish community.

Is this startup idea feasible? I would like to share one example that demonstrates the power of social entrepreneurship in our Jewish community.

In February 2013, I was part of a discussion group that met to discuss what steps could be taken to make the Modern Orthodox St Louis community more vibrant in the future.  Most participants were parents of young children. The discussion focused on identifying key components to make St Louis a destination city for families who share their Jewish communal goals. 

During the second meeting, after reviewing the Jewish institutional landscape and then broadening participation in the conversation, the group concluded that a new Modern Orthodox high school was urgently needed, a school that would be collaborative within the community, welcome students no matter their religious backgrounds, have high Judaic and general education standards, a commitment to the State of Israel, and a warm and caring environment. 

In late May 2013, after numerous public and private meetings, a core group of fewer than 10 lay leaders together with Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel embarked on an initiative to open a school three months later. The next three months had the intensity of any entrepreneurial startup. Meetings took place at least several evenings a week, and emails and phone calls occurred many times a day. With a clear vision for the school, a number of individuals made commitments to substantial four-year donations that would ensure a funding base for the school. 

The families of potential students were repeatedly briefed on the startup activities. Shulman agreed to serve as founding head of school. An experienced principal was recruited to lead the general studies program. Innovative approaches for curriculum development were devised. Judaic studies faculty members were recruited. A school location was selected (the school rents space from the Epstein Hebrew Academy). Administrative procedures were developed, including registration forms, school policies and the like. Computer systems were purchased and installed. The group continuously innovated, refined and revised to improve.

And by late August, the new school had a name: Yeshivat Kadimah High School. Kadimah means moving forward, a clear message of the intent of the founders. Yeshivat means a place of study, one that would enable progress and vitality. The school also had 10 founding students who made the commitment to be pioneers. 

Early last June, Yeshivat Kadimah held its first graduation, a ceremony that honored its first graduate and the entire group of pioneering students. For those attending, there was a sense of amazement that this had really happened, that all the stakeholders, including founders, parents, donors, staff and a supportive community, had enabled this entrepreneurial venture to achieve a landmark accomplishment.

For this school year, Yeshivat Kadimah enrollment has grown to 19 students. In its second year, the school still relies very much on the entrepreneurial passion of its volunteers. Just like all startups, the early years are fragile. Much has been accomplished, but we need to do so much more. 

I suggest we encourage more “Kadimah” initiatives in our community. This approach will broaden involvement as we respond to what we have learned from our demographic study. Let’s create time and space for interested groups to talk about the key needs we have collectively recognized. Lay and professional people who share a passion and have the capacity to be innovative leaders should step forward as venture founders. 

With entrepreneurial zeal, such founding groups can develop sound plans for key elements of our future. Those plans will interest and motivate donors. And we will all feel more optimistic about the future of our St. Louis Jewish community.

Heschel Raskas of St. Louis is board chairman of Yeshivat Kadimah High School, a former president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and a former treasurer of Jewish Federations of North America. He is a member of Young Israel.