It’s an early fall evening in the Botanical Heights neighborhood of South St. Louis, and Nava Kantor stands inside the doorway of MaTovu greeting guests as they step into the warm light.
The occasion is the fifth “birthday” celebration of MaTovu, an inclusive Jewish neighborhood center Kantor co-founded with a mission to foster connection by enriching the community’s spiritual, cultural, and social life. The distinctly Jewish building adorned with Stars of David above its front door and in its stained-glass windows has been the official home of MaTovu since 2018.
The building itself has a history in the St. Louis Jewish community, having served as the South Side Hebrew Congregation from 1929 to 1944. Its decorative brick façade remained intact for 75 years through various uses — including a church — and the founders of MaTovu, themselves rooted in the community, had a strong desire to return it to a Jewish purpose.
MaTovu’s beginnings were truly grassroots. The seeds of the organization actually began about seven years ago.
“There was sort of a critical mass of young Jewish people living in the City of St. Louis,” Kantor says. “During that time, a group formed that was a small, independent, Shabbat-focused group that was doing services and study groups and singing together.”
As more and more people connected with the group, they began to outgrow the various homes they’d been meeting in and realized that the only Jewish organization with a physical presence in the City of St. Louis was the synagogue Central Reform Congregation. All of the other synagogues, as well as the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation of St. Louis, were located in West St. Louis County. They began imagining what it might look like to have a more permanent Jewish space or infrastructure in the city.
“I think there’s shared values among people who choose to live in the city around wanting to be in a diverse community — more of an orientation towards social justice and grappling with our region’s most challenging issues, which are really right in front of you if you live in the city,” Kantor says.
Acknowledging the physical limitations of living in the city and participating in St. Louis Jewish life, a primary driver of creating a dedicated space for MaTovu was providing close and even walkable access. The co-founders also recognized that there was a lack of the specific type of space they had in mind.
“The goal we had was to create a space that wasn’t a synagogue but was a Jewish community space where we could have social, cultural, educational, and spiritual programming,” Kantor says. “Because we’re literally on the margin of the institutional Jewish scene and also kind of culturally on the margin — being younger and more social justice oriented — we were excited to create a space where we could do programs that were a little more on the edge or a little more political or creative than maybe what some of the bigger Jewish institutions in town feel able to do.”
Co-founder Paul Sorenson first stumbled upon the building on Blaine in 2016. It was owned by local developer and builder UIC, which was considering it for a new CrossFit gym, but was very early in the process. Sorenson and his co-founders approached UIC and began a conversation about the potential of renting the building.
“It was this very unique community space, and I think in the city in particular, those sorts of spaces with distinct Jewish history are disappearing or almost gone. As more and more of us put down roots in the city, it became important to us to figure out a way to keep that space within its historic use,” Sorenson says.
The founders put forth a Letter of Intent to UIC expressing their desire for the developer to historically preserve the building and committing to being its first tenants. Thanks to funding support from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, MaTovu was able to sign a lease and spend about a year working with UIC to complete renovations to the building prior to taking occupancy on September 28, 2018. Gaining the support of the larger Jewish community was instrumental in the process.
Another co-founder, Shira Birkowitz, remembers, “We met with all of the leaders in the Jewish community — all institutional leaders and rabbis — to make sure that this was an added value to what already existed and not competitive in nature, and to listen to the ideas that the community leaders had about the potential for this space.”
MaTovu continues to be supported by community sponsors including the Jewish Federation and the Kranzberg Family Foundation, and has received support in the past from the Staenberg Family Foundation and the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah as well.
“It was always really important to us that our building had historical significance so we were a continuation of Jewish history,” Berkowitz says. “I think the visibility of being a Jewish building in a place where you see churches on most every corner really strengthens the belonging that I think Jews living in the city feel.”
Berkowitz says it was equally important to the founders of MaTovu to be first and foremost a good neighbor in the community. Knowing the building had served various churches in the past, the organization has welcomed those neighborhood churches back into the space to hold services and other events as they need it.
This inclusivity is at the core of MaTovu’s values. The name itself, translated from Hebrew as “How good it is,” comes from the only prayer in Jewish literature written by a non-Jew. As MaTovu shares on its website: “The story goes that a wicked prophet named Balaam was supposed to curse the Jews in the desert, but — overcome with awe at the sight of folks gathered together — felt compelled to bless them instead.”
“We primarily engage with the Jewish community but have a very open stance. Anyone is welcome to come to any of our programming,” Kantor says. “A lot of it has a Jewish inflection or lens, but isn’t super religious, so it’s accessible in that way.”
Program topics range from a spiritual approach to climate change to “Embodied Shabbat,” a creative celebration of the Sabbath incorporating yoga and meditation. MaTovu also doesn’t shy away from subjects that more traditional institutions might not feel comfortable approaching, such as Jewish law and abortion and LGBTQIA+ rights. Being in the city also invites topics directly related to issues faced by the community.
“We live in St. Louis and we’re very anchored to our place here, and that means engagement with all sorts of folks,” Sorenson says. “This is a space in which we can have critical conversations about the future of our region that are relevant to everybody one day and then the next day have an alternative Jewish prayer service.”
MaTovu has hosted over 215 events with more than 6,000 attendees in its first five years. While the group looks to its future, it is also celebrating its growth. Both event numbers and participation doubled in the past year. A recent grant from the Jewish Federation allowed MaTovu to hire its first paid staff member, Community and Strategy Lead Charlie Meyers. And in addition to Kantor, Sorenson, and Berkowitz, MaTovu is also supported by current board members Abby Bennett, Katie Garland, Barbara Levin, Russel Neiss, and Andrew Warshauer, a group that includes additional co-founders.
“There are a lot of people who came together to make this happen and I think our biggest indicator for success is that we’re all still around the table. That table is becoming bigger and bigger,” Sorenson says.
At MaTovu’s fifth birthday party on October 4, the founders unveiled a new cooperative model built on the tenets of shared space, shared decision-making, and shared community to deepen engagement, offering members the opportunity to become “Builders” with a greater stake in and commitment to the organization. Reflecting on how far they have come, the founders agree that the City of St. Louis provided the perfect fertile ground upon which to create and grow MaTovu.
“You can start things here. It’s accessible to experiment and start a new organization or bring people together in new ways and get support for that in ways that I think there can be more barriers in bigger cities,” Kantor says.
Berkowitz welcomes fellow St. Louisans to get to know both MaTovu and the greater local Jewish community.
“We are an inclusive, multigenerational, multi-diverse group of people that care deeply about making St. Louis our home, and we are a vibrant addition to being in the city.”