When the Pew Research Center released its survey of America’s religious landscape in May 2015, it found that the fastest growing religious group in the country was the religiously unaffiliated. Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein has found a way to address that issue while allowing that group—commonly known as “Nones”—to find the spirituality they seek without the affiliation they don’t want.
Shavit-Lonstein, the rabbi at Temple Of Aaron in St. Paul from 2002-2014, founded By The Rivers earlier this year. The organization is a non-profit, multi-faith learning, lifecycle and event center that seeks to connect individuals to religious traditions and spirituality.
“There is a need in the Jewish community that isn’t being completely fulfilled by interacting with existing institutions,” Shavit-Lonstein says. “But it’s not just within the Jewish community; churches and mosques face this too. There are under-connected people within their own religions.”
Shavit-Lonstein is a Conservative-trained rabbi, although his upbringing in the Reform movement has helped inform how he’s organized By The Rivers.
“I sort of dreamed about a place or a space that various traditions can call home together,” Marboe said. He explained that in the Islamic world during the golden ages, there were houses of wisdom that were open to all.
The center is situated in Highland in the former Edyth Bush Theater building at 690 Cleveland Ave. S. in St. Paul. Shavit-Lonstein describes the second-floor space as large and flexible, built to accommodate everything from small-group discussions to medium-sized lifecycle events.
The space is also less than a mile away from Temple Of Aaron, a move that Shavit-Lonstein insists is not an affront to his former employer. “We looked at a number of spaces and this met our need,” he said. “Being near Temple Of Aaron is completely coincidental. I wish there was more parking, but it’s Highland.”
Jodi Saltzman, a St. Paul resident and longtime Temple Of Aaron member, says that Shavit-Lonstein’s ability to engage through prayer and stories has made her experiences with him at By The Rivers wonderful.
“There’s quite a few Temple Of Aaron members that are followers,” Saltzman said. “I’m not sure it’s a competition because he’s not opening a synagogue. I found him to be just as open and accessible at Temple of Aaron as well. I feel both offer what I need.”
Pastor John Marboe of Zion Lutheran Church, faculty member at the University of Minnesota, garbageman and By The Rivers board member, spoke with Shavit-Lonstein after his departure from Temple Of Aaron about what his next steps would be.
“I sort of dreamed about a place or a space that various traditions can call home together,” Marboe said. He explained that in the Islamic world during the golden ages, there were houses of wisdom that were open to all. Places where people could study and break bread.
“We’ve been in been in close dialogue since Shavit-Lonstein left Temple Of Aaron over a year ago,” Marboe said of their talks. “We’ve been wondering what’s next not only for him, but for us and what do we want to do together.”
One of the first classes at By The Rivers was called “How To Be a Perfect Stranger,” which was a multi-session series that gathered teachers from a variety of religious traditions, including Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Muslim, and Native American religions. Jodi Saltzman’s daughter, Sami, was home from Carlton College and went to a class and found it fascinating.
“I came away thinking about the similarities of people turning to religion at times of crises,” Sami said. “The customs may be different, but actions and traditions stem from similar beliefs.”
Sami is an education major, and said the area she’s most interested in is how race, religion and class affect the education system. She said that Shavit-Lonstein bringing people together to have discussions about the impact of religious, class and racial disparity can only bring good things.
“He’s not only bringing different groups together, but he’s talking about issues that tear people apart,” she said. “It’s allowing people to create a better understanding of each other that can lead to less hatred and fear.”