How MaTovu founders brought vision of Jewish gathering space to life

A+gathering+at+MaTovu+during+Sukkot.%0A%0APHOTO%3A+BILL+MOTCHAN

A gathering at MaTovu during Sukkot.

PHOTO: BILL MOTCHAN

Bill Motchan, Special To The Jewish Light

The founding members of MaTovu joke about how their conversion of a historic building into a Jewish gathering space meant one less potential location for a CrossFit gym. They have done much more than that in transforming the former south side Hebrew Congregation, which operated at 4200 Blaine Ave. from 1929 to 1944.

Since its founding in October 2018, MaTovu has provided a vibrant and inclusive community center with programming and events based on Jewish values. Its location in the heart of south St. Louis has also provided an important anchor for city residents such as Mia Salamone, who moved here from Chicago in 2016.

In 2018, MaTovu opened at 4200 Blaine Ave. in south St. Louis. The building was originally a synagogue, Hebrew Congregation, which was open 1929 to 1944. In later years, a church occupied the space. PHOTO: FACEBOOK.COM/MATOVUSTL

“It’s a really great place to meet people and connect with the Jewish community,” Salamone said. “It’s important to me to connect in a physical space, and it’s in my neighborhood. I can walk there, I can bike there, and I feel like it’s really rooted and connected to my life.”

MaTovu was created by a volunteer board, almost all of whom live in the city. They figured other Jewish city residents wanted a gathering space, too. They were right. The organization’s email list is 500 names and growing, alongside over 1,700 social media followers. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The J advertisement

Finding a building with Jewish roots was serendipitous, founding board member Tasha Kaminsky said.

“According to a Jewish Federation study, there are about 5,000 Jewish people living in the city, out of total population of 300,000, which is a significant percentage,” Kaminsky said (the 2014 demographic study found there were approximately 60,000 Jews in the St. Louis metro area as a whole). “There weren’t many Jewish resources [in the city] that were accessible. Our friend Paul Sorenson was walking down Blaine and saw an abandoned building that was about to be rehabbed.”

Top Row from left: Shira Berkowitz, Russel Neiss, Katie Garland

Middle Row from left: Paul Sorenson, Nava Kantor, Andrew Warshauer, Caroline Kessler.

Bottom Row from left: Barbara Levin, Tasha Kaminsky, Abby Bennett

When Sorenson and his wife, MaTovu co-founder Katie Garland, first saw the building, it still needed a lot of work. It had been used in recent years as a church, but still bore Stars of David in stained glass and brickwork. After negotiating with the building’s owners for a lease and rehab plans, the MaTovu board began meeting twice a week to create a mission, vision, values and programming. 

Having the right physical space was key, Sorenson said.

“This historic synagogue in the city had this really exciting and unique opportunity to remain a Jewish space in a way that it hadn’t been for years,” Sorenson said. “It could really be a center for Jewish life in the city in a way that the St. Louis region has not seen in decades.”

Besides a committed volunteer board, MaTovu has received support from other organizations, including Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Staenberg Family Foundation. MaTovu was also awarded a national Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Learning in 2019. It is now a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council. In the early stages, it was supported by Kol Rinah and Ashreinu, the minyan community developed by Jewish millennial city dwellers. 

MaTovu has attracted city and county members of the Jewish community to its thought-provoking series of programs, such as “Living in a Post-Roe World.”

“We get to think about current politics through a Jewish lens, process it together and hear from experts,” Salamone said. “It was well-received and offered a nice balance of information and learning opportunities for action.”

The strength of the MaTovu programs has been an important resource, founding board member Russel Neiss said.

“The key for me is the kinds of programs MaTovu is running,” Neiss said. “The outlook that they have is so unique and so valuable to the St. Louis community in the sense that they’re willing to really delve deeply into topics and to push the buttons on issues that no one else is even thinking about or talking about.”

The MaTovu community has flourished, even with the challenges of COVID a year after opening. Sorenson said shifting some programs online for two years didn’t hinder their growth.

“We came back to in-person events over the course of the past year, which kept the momentum of having more than 4,000 people attend our programs since opening,” he said. “Our last count was 140 events. It’s not just folks who are coming from the Jewish community, but also our friends and families and neighbors and others who are coming into the space and using it for a variety of community-driven purposes.

“There’s been a lot of positive reactions and a lot of excitement that MaTovu is here and is trying to do something a little different than what folks have seen in other Jewish spaces in the region,” he said. “What we’re trying to build is something that’s different from most spaces in the region, Jewish or not. And this real sense of collective community building in a way that in my experience, is the only real way community is built.”

The MaTovu community center contains 2,600 square feet of space, with a large gathering area, a conference room and a small office library. Having a physical space to gather is an important factor in the organization’s success and takes a cue from the prayer MaTovu, in which the Torah seer Balaam is awestruck by the Israelites’ houses of worship.

“There’s an emphasis on place and space,” Neiss said. “The prayer itself means that a building has a power of space and bringing people together. We take that to heart a lot at MaTovu.”

It’s not just the space that builds a community, Neiss said, but also providing a gathering place for a diverse group, including age diversity.

“We see young families in the city at MaTovu,” he said. “We see older retired folks who are moving back into the downtown area and into the city because they don’t want the big house anymore. So the nature of the community is changing.”

Equally important is diversity of faith. MaTovu welcomes anyone to its space. It doesn’t ask, “What denomination are you?” Those questions don’t matter, Sorenson said.

“I think what matters most is that someone is actively participating in community with us,” he said. “And it’s that active participation that helps bind us together.”

Founding board member Shira Berkowitz said MaTovu celebrates Judaism.

“We integrate Jewish values into our programming, so we actually provide programs that are attentive to the multiple identities of everyone,” she said. “We don’t ask people to compartmentalize themselves when they come into the space. We’ve created a space where you can bring the fullness of your identity forward to participate in all of our programming.”

Kaminsky, also a founder of Ashreinu, said creating MaTovu has been rewarding for her on many levels.

“Having been able to share time, talent and resources with the Jewish community and seeing the outcome has been so vibrant and so incredible,” she said. “It’s been a feeling of renewed faith and excitement about the possibilities of the future of Judaism. 

“All of the work and research that we did to create MaTovu, ultimately was recognized and paid off. It’s overwhelmingly reassuring to me about the future of Judaism and about what Judaism will look like in St. Louis.”