Friday, April 30, 2010

St. Lou Jews & How Prop A Came Together

"Nice Idea, But We Can't Afford It"

That sums up what Batya Abramson-Goldstein, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of St. Louis, expected to hear from the voters of St. Louis County when they were asked this year to invest in Metrolink with a half-cent sales tax hike.

Proposition A, as it was called, instead passed with a comfortable margin, almost sixty-three percent of the vote.

Metro Logo"That's a remarkable showing in the middle of a bad economic climate," says my friend Larry Handlin, a local political junkie and blogger. Tax initiatives had been soundly beaten twice before, most recently just in 2008, when fifty-two percent of St. Louis County voters said "no."

"A Vote of No Confidence"

Tom Shrout, Executive Director of Citizens for Modern Transit, spent a good part of 2008 in frustration. The campaign for Proposition M, that year's sales tax hike, was being run by a staff member in the office of County Executive Charlie Dooley, and its message was mostly about how Metrolink needed more money.

Greater St. Louis Transit AllianceThat was unfortunate, since tales of perceived overspending and mismanagement by Metrolink had been grabbing headlines for much of the year.

Many had assumed Prop M would pass, but looking back, the outcome was pretty predictable.

"What happened at the ballot box was a vote of no confidence," explains Batya Abramson-Goldstein.

But even before the Prop M vote in 2008, Tom Shrout had been part of a group that started putting together a coalition, the Greater St. Louis Transit Alliance, that kept working, kept meeting, kept reaching out.

Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis LogoThe JCRC was part of the effort all along but radically stepped up its game as well, holding community forums and building advocacy as early as March of 2009.

The Secret Is in the Sauce

Jews are as prominent in St. Louis public transit issues as we are in most other areas of civic engagement. Maybe more so. Going back decades, some prominent names are those of former Clayton mayor Ben Uchitelle (who I study Torah with at Central Reform Congregation), or Les Sterman, head of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, or Fred Epstein, part of the leadership of the Greater St. Louis Transit Alliance.

But from the start of the campaign for Prop A, even before anyone knew which letter it would have, the Jewish organizing machine seemed to go into overdrive.

Tom Shrout recalls that Bob Baer, Metro's President and CEO, reached out to Jewish organizations as far back as December of 2008, leading to a meeting with over forty people that focused on the implications of losing mass transit for less fortunate people.

Four months later, the JCRC put together a community forum that drew almost two hundred people, more than a year before election day.

"The bus lines were being closed down," Abramson-Goldstein recalls. "We had a couple who live in a nursing home, and they were no longer able to get to their synagogue let alone other activities. There was a blind woman, President of a state organization, who was completely dependent on Metrolink. There was a young Muslim man unable to get to work or his mosque."

"It was a community concern," she concludes. "A social justice concern. The whole community was affected, and the issue resonated on all those levels."

Jewish volunteers and organizations networked with labor unions, social welfare organizations, African-American churches, and disability advocates such as the Missouri Organization for the Blind. The editorial board of the Jewish Light prodded the community with strong endorsements. A massive absentee ballot effort was launched to enable observant County residents to cast their votes on election day, April 6th, which fell on a Yom Tov, the eighth day of Passover.

It All Came Together. And How.

Numerically, the differences between 2008 and 2010 are eye-popping. In spite of the worst economic conditions in recent memory, supporters of Prop A delivered more votes in almost every precinct.

But Tom Shrout saw one particular pattern right away.

"You saw a big turnaround in Olivette, Creve Coeur, and other parts of the region," he recalls, indicating areas with high proportions of Jewish voters.

"In those places, it was eighteen to twenty percentage points," he points out. "That's huge."

The St. Louis County Board of Elections crunched the numbers and came up with the images below, which you can see in greater detail here.

Map of Precinct Results: Yes on MMap of Precinct Results: Yes on A

Overlay these maps with your minds-eye view of the Jewish geography of St. Louis, and you begin to see the picture.

"I Think It Shows the Power of Community."

In fairness, Prop A was carried by hefty margins in plenty of decidedly not Jewish precincts.

But all in all, the Jewish community arguably deserves a pat on the back for keeping the engine of transit running in St. Louis.

"I'm grateful to the Jewish community," says Tom Shrout. "I have been for twenty-two years."

Batya Abramson-Goldstein would certainly agree.

"It's terrific when the community comes together," she says.

Michael Getty is a freelance writer who blogs at and tweets at

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Monday, April 26, 2010

A Very Musical Week

Fresh off a packed Shabbat Dinner at Next Dor, and some ridiculous storms, The St. Lou Jew wants you to know about all of the great music taking place in St. Louis this week.

We'll get right to it. After an impromptu acoustic jam session at Next Dor last night, it dawned on us that there is a lot of music going on in and around STL this week.

Tuesday, Cincinnati based band Foxy Shazam will be tearing up Off Broadway
with a show that has earned it a Riverfront Times Critic Pick. Bonus points for having keyboard player Sky White, with whom I conquered the Bogart's High School Battle of the Bands back in the day.

Wednesday, while it may not quite be music, the Jewish Bikers club is having a meeting at the Hacienda on Manchester. I'm so intrigued by the concept, I may just have to check it out.

Thursday, slide on down to Beale on Broadway to check out one of St. Louis' own stars, Kim Massie as she performs your favorite soul and R&B tunes.

Friday, KDHX, St. Louis' own independent radio station will be hosting a tribute to James Brown at Off Broadway.

If you happen to be in Fayetteville, Arkansas on Friday, come check out STL's Autiomadic with Hardaway and the Commoners.

Saturday, Start off the evening with Chana Rothman, a newly crowned queen of Roots/Rock/Jewfolk music, who will be performing at Temple Emmanuel in the early evening. Following that, check out SLIC's Israeli Independence Day party. Cap off the night with a huge dance party at the Gramophone to make it a well balanced night.

Just announced, on Sunday, The Moshav Band, an Israeli-American group, will be performing for free at United Hebrew. More details here.

I told you it would be a busy week! Read More......

Friday, April 23, 2010

Back From Hiatus

It sure has been a while eh?

The St. Lou Jew has been on Hiatus the past week as there have been so many things going on we didn't have time to write about them. But not to worry, next week, we'll be interviewing members of the Jewish Motorcycle Club, we'll feature stories on the Jewish vote in Proposition A's passing, as well as a few other surprises, so stay tuned.

Shabbat Shalom. And maybe we'll see you at the Birthright Next Sponsored Third Friday's at Next Dor! Read More......

Monday, April 12, 2010

Miss Metrolink: Liz Kramer

Liz Kramer may seem like a mild mannered young professional at first glance, but her advocacy for public transportation in St. Louis, along with some clever events has earned her the nickname 'Miss Metrolink', a character she has transformed into to show the city that public transportation is beyond important, it is downright fun.

We recently sat down with Liz to hear about the mysterious origins of Miss Metrolink and hear her thoughts on the recent passage of Proposition A, which restored funding to public transportation in the metropolitan area.

Before we even started the interview, Liz broke us off with this amazing news, all Metrolink stations now allow you to purchase tickets on credit cards. Those of us who don't carry cash and can never find a nearby ATM realize how big of a deal this is. With that out of the way, we were set to start.

STLJ: Where did the idea for Miss Metrolink come from and how did you turn into her?

A few years back, I was at the veiled profit parade with some friends, and we saw a woman with a sash that said, "Miss Metro St. Louis", I thought it was for Metrolink, and when I realized that it wasn't, I decided that wanted to be the winner of the Miss Metrolink Pageant. It basically became a joke between our friends.

I found a blue prom dress in my parents house, and my friends made a costume and I wore it on the train on the way to my 21st birthday. At this point it was still a joke.

I met Claire Nowak-Boyd, also half a Jew, because she wanted to have a pageant for the Metro, and we thought a pagaent was too complicated, so we just hd a prom on the Metrolink which happened to be right before Prop M (a previous measure to restore Metro funding) was on the ballot. We harassed my roommate until she agreed to help us plan it, chose a route, and bought a bunch of dollar store party favors. That first year we didn't even tell Metro what we were doing, and we had a specific political agenda where we told everyone at the end to vote for Prop M.

After Prop M failed, we hosted a very tongue in cheek funeral for the all of the bus lines that were cut back. Everyone wrote ridiculous eulogies for the bus funeral, people went all out.

STLJ: You've been getting a fair amount of your press on behalf of your advocacy. How have you managed that?

I don't like the press and media aspect. I get uncomfortable around the media piece. My background is in technical theater, so I'm used to backstage work. When we planned the events,I was in charge of operations, Claire handled promotions and media.

STLJ: What is one of the largest challenges you have faced as a result of the character of St. Louis?

St. Louis is a very difficult place reinventing yourself. I think people who are here, you become what you are doing very completely. I still have people calling me in regards to research I did on urban food in North St. Louis several years ago. I tell them that I'm sure someone has done more up to date research.

STLJ: A lot of people talk about all the changes that need to take place in St. Louis, what makes that change happen?

I think it is all about social networking in terms of fixing things. I don't put much intention in who I meet or doing things, I just think that things happen. I don't believe in coincidences. I didn't start out to be the transit advocate. I care about it, but it isn't my main thing. I'm more interested in urban systems. I think you can connect people and give people the opportunity to connect and interact. I feel like we are creating a social self inspirational snowball, where you know someone who is doing something cool, which inspires you to make something happen, which in turn inspires someone else. I think that is how to create movements that change things in communities this size. I didn't want to make the Miss Metrolink political, I wanted to talk about why transit is fun and important. The event is about having fun on transit.

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Friday, April 9, 2010

Music, Social Activism, Balance, and Sushi

What do all these things have in common? They are all happening. Within the next week. In St. Louis. Read on for more.

Music - Tonight at The Gramophone, The Right Now are scheduled to tear down the house with a smashing CD release party. These guys bring some killer soul grooves so even though the show doesn't start till 10, you might wanna show up to get a spot. Bonus points for the smoke-free venue.

On Monday, a speaker will be covering how to manage stress and maintain balance and recognize behaviors that may prevent achieving that goal. The event is free, and will be taking place at the Next Dor house at 7 PM. More details here.

Thursday night is double stuffed, kicking off with Mark Hanis, Founder and President of the Genocide Intervention Network, who will be speaking about anti-genocide activism. This event, organized by the Young Professional's Division of JFedStL, will be taking place at the MO History museum at 7:30 PM. Genocide Intervention Network’s mission is to empower individuals and communities with the tools to prevent and stop genocide. As a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, Mark has a deep understanding of individual persecution and of hope and opportunity. The event is free. For more details, click here.

Also on Thursday night, Rabbi Zvi Schwartz will be hosting a free and kosher sushi dinner at the Next Dor house. Rabbi Schwartz will be letting people know about Israel programs post-college. The dinner starts at 8:30 pm. More details here

What are you getting into this weekend?
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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Get Involved: Day of Service

We often hear from people who want to know how they can give back to the community. Today, it just so happens that we have an answer for you.

The second annual Day of Service will be held on Sunday April 18th from noon to 3pm. The event, held at the St. Louis Hillel (6300 Forsyth, 63105) will provide the opportunity to help with one of multiple projects going on throughout the early afternoon.

You can register online at

In other news, Proposition A passed! This measure will restore cuts in Metro public transportation and provide for future expansion. We had the chance to ask Grand Center C.E.O. and Prop A booster Vince Schoemehl his thoughts on the outcome of the vote. Said Schomehl, "It's a very big deal because it shows this community can still do big important things. I'm hoping this launches a whole new sense of civic self confidence in the Region."

How are you feeling about the Metro win?
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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Metrolink Vote TODAY!

If you are registered to vote in St. Louis County, please take 10 minutes today to vote for Proposition A, in favor of restored and expanded public transportation.

As Vince Schoemehl put it:
I currently serve as the Chair of the Metro Transit Agency Board and writing to ask you to vote in favor of Proposition A, Tuesday, April 6 if you live in St. Louis County. If you don’t live in the County could you please contact a friend, relative or work associate who might be able to cast a ballot for this extremely important measure. Prop A narrowly failed in November, 2008 and as a result Metro had to drastically slash service in March of 2009. We were able to restore part of this service with a one-time appropriation from the State of Missouri which came from federal stimulus funds. This funding runs out June 30 of this year and there is no prospect of this appropriation being renewed.

In all my years in civic and political life I have never seen as stark a choice for our community. If Prop A passes we can restore MetroBus, MetroLink and Call-A-Ride service and we can begin to build a truly competitive transit system. If Prop A fails Metro will be forced to lay off 650 Metro employees and again cut service to a nub of what it is today.

If you have any questions about Prop A please feel free to e-mail me or call me but I have attached a link below to an interview with John Nations, the Mayor of Chesterfield who is running the campaign. John does an excellent job in this interview of explaining the benefits of Prop A and addresses quite effectively some concerns that have been raised about the proposal.

Thanks for your consideration and I hope you can help us make Metro the important part of our regional economy that it has the potential to be.

Vincent C. Schoemehl
President and CEO
Grand Center, Inc.
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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Passover Shenanigans

Happy April 1st, a day marked by Google changing its name to Topeka, youtube streaming videos as ASCII text, and us Jews still not eating bread.

This Pesach has already been filled with some interesting happenings, detailed below

First, in the lead up to Pesach, a holiday in which we don't eat chametz, a certain level of 'Spring Cleaning' goes on. But beyond the simple sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming, we also soaked dishes in boiling water to ritually purify them and remove any lingering chametz. All that is pretty standard, but when Dan, president of the Next Dor Board, asked us to sign a contract to allow a Rabbi to sell our remaining Chametz, we were a little confused.

See, religious Jews get rid of all of their chametz, either selling it, giving it away, or burning it in some cases. For those who don't want to waste the food, you can give someone the authority to 'sell' the chametz for the duration of Passover, after which the ownership automatically returns to you.

This work around is pretty humorous to secular Jews who look at it and think, if you are just going to get around it on a technicality, why do it at all... which is a conversation for another day.

We were able to hold a large (38 people) First Night Seder, thanks to a few enterprising friends and a generous grant from Birthright Israel Next. Sure, only 25 people RSVPed, with many contacting us last minute (the latest being around an hour before our scheduled start time), but that is the point of a Seder right? To enable all who are in need to come take part, to help to make people feel at home and welcome, and to fulfill the educational and ritual traditions associated with the holiday.

After consulting with a few Israeli friends, we are happy to announce a Chag Sheinee BBQ, as well as a Mimouna Celebration. There isn't a whole lot of time between now and then, so figure out if you can make it and let us know ASAP.

How have you been dealing with Passover? Have you found the lack of bread particularly hard this year, or has the partial fast aided you in moving towards your own personal freedom?
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