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Seeking To Bridge Gap Between Jews and Urban St. Louis

In her travels throughout St. Louis as coordinator of the Student-to-Student program, Fawn Chapel has gotten to hear some humorous questions regarding Jewish life and culture.

“One time, a kid asked, ‘So if you read backwards, do you also speak backwards?’” Chapel recalled. Other favorites include “Do you celebrate birthdays?” and “Can you celebrate Thanksgiving?”

Student-to-Student is a unique program that brings Jewish high school students into St. Louis area schools that have a very low or nonexistent Jewish presence, often in rural regions. The Jewish students give presentations on several aspects of Jewish religion, culture and history to their peers, some of whom have never met a Jewish person in their lives. It is estimated that Jews make up around 2 percent of the population of St. Louis, a figure that closely correlates to the percentage of Jews in United States.

“In St. Louis, there’s a central corridor through the city where most of the Jewish people live, extending from the city out to the suburbs,” Chapel said. “So most schools in the central corridor have a significant Jewish presence. But any place north or south or in the city itself, for the most part, does not.”

The program represents members of all major branches of the Jewish religion. Each presentation group of four students includes at least one Reform, Conservative and Orthodox member.

“You have the opportunity for a special kind of relationship building,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and the program’s founder, “because it’s built on having something you’re working on together, something meaningful. It’s also about building bridges within our own community, not just in the outside community.”

The program began in 1992 when Abramson-Goldstein saw the positive effect that Israeli high school students had on a classroom of American peers. She had presented on Judaism for teenagers from time to time but had never gotten the enthusiastic reaction she was looking for.

“When I did it, it was almost like a window shade coming down on the students’ eyes,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “‘Ugh, another teacher, another class.’ I put one and one together and what came out was Student-to-Student. The way to really reach teens was to have teens.”

The program started with a group of ten teens. Today, it has grown to 128 students, and Chapel estimates that the program reaches 4,000 non-Jewish high schoolers per year.

When asked why the program originated in St. Louis, Chapel credited the city’s strong interfaith community. The program is unique in its size and scope, and as far as Chapel knows, has not been imitated in other cities.

“It’s a model that other communities can replicate, and we’ve had some requests from other communities,” she said. “But I don’t think any of them have done it yet.”

During school visits, Student-to-Student presenters list their interests, extracurricular activities and hobbies, and briefly describe their branch of Judaism. Chapel explained that these personal details help the audience begin to relate to the Jewish students.

After introductions, the presenters discuss Jewish life cycle events and traditions, such as bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals and mourning rituals. Then they move on to Shabbat and the history and significance of Israel. They bring as many props as they can, from tefillin to challah, to engage their teenage audiences.

“For Jewish weddings, it’s fun,” Chapel said. “They’ll hold up a tallit and ask for a couple kids from the audience to come up and pretend like it’s a chuppah.”

Harry Potter books in Hebrew are another crowd favorite.

The presenters don’t stick to a script, and the age and amount of students in these classrooms can vary, so the participants need to be ready for tough questions.

Samantha Shanker, an alumna of the program and now a sophomore at Kenyon College, said the experience helped her with critical thinking skills. She also realized that she knew more about Judaism than she originally thought.

“It definitely was a program unlike any other educational experience that I had,” she said. “I remember being very nervous before going into these classrooms because I was afraid that I wouldn’t know enough. It turns out that a lot of these kids have such minimal knowledge of the religion and the culture that what I had to say was interesting to them and even kind of fun.”

Aitan Groener, an incoming freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, was the Orthodox member in his Student-to-Student group. The two years that he participated in the program were the first two years he attended non-Jewish public school. He credits the program with helping him learn how to describe his beliefs to others who are unfamiliar with specific aspects of Judaism.

“I was learning a vocabulary to use to describe why Shabbat is important to me, and why I can’t go to a non-kosher restaurant and all these things,” Groener said. “I was able to explain and to get people to understand who were unfamiliar with the concept.”

Hilary Cedergreen, a vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis (which runs Student-to-Student), believes that the program has more relevance than ever, given the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

“One of my kids is starting high school this year and I see the world through [his eyes] as being so combative,” she said. “When I’m looking to get funding for the program, I tell people that it’s important to understand that it’s not really just about religion. This is about helping a program that will teach youth to work for peace and collaboration — even when they don’t agree, even when they practice different traditions.”

The program seems to be making a tangible impact. Maddie Emerson, a graduate of Rosati-Kain High School, an all-girls Catholic school, studied Judaism in class for weeks before attending a Student-to-Student presentation. She said the presenters made her book learning come alive.

“We were taught a lot about Judaism [in class], but in PowerPoints and in 45 minutes with words we didn’t understand,” Emerson said. “[The Student-to-Student presenters] passed out challah, which was great.”

Of course, every now and then, the presentations elicited delightful surprises from the audience.

“One time there was a girl who said ‘I’ve had kreplach,’” Chapel said. “It was so unexpected!”

Gabe Friedman is a summer fellow at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected]

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