Former St. Louisans who have made aliyah reconnect in Jerusalem

Some 45 former St. Louisans who now live in Israel came together earlier this month at the home of Leah Hakimian in Jerusalem.  Photo: Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman 

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman, Special to the Jewish Light

Some 45 attendees streamed into Jerusalem from across the country for the event July 5, making treks from Rehovot, in the central part of the country; Beit Shemesh, a suburb about 45 minutes outside Jerusalem, and the Samarian communities of Neve Tzuf and Yitzhar, in the West Bank. 

“Look how happy people are,” said Leah Abramowitz, who helped plan the event with Hakimian. “Some of these people are seeing each other for the first time since making aliyah.” 

Before she could finish her sentence, a young woman embraced Abramowitz in a hug.

“I recognized you immediately, and I have not seen you since I was 5 years old,” she gasped before scuttling away.

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The event was an offshoot of a recently established St. Louis WhatsApp group. WhatsApp Messenger is a social media messaging service owned by Facebook that is popular in Israel. 

Ephraim Schreibman, who moved to Israel from St. Louis 29 years ago, said the group was started shortly after the recent and untimely passing of Norma Flaks Barach, whose husband, Jerry, was at the reunion. Schreibman had tried to share Barach’s shiva information among her old friends and found it frustrating that there was no easy way to share simchas and other news with St. Louisans in Israel. When he mentioned the challenge to Lori Makovsky Goldfarb, she quickly launched the WhatsApp group. Today, there are 68 members.  

“One person added another person, another added another person,” Goldfarb explained. “People still feel like St. Louisans are family. Younger or older, it doesn’t really matter. We feel at home with these people.”

Schreibman even maintains a connection to his favorite sports team, the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Each time a new grandchild is born, he purchases a Cardinals cap for the baby. Two years, ago, Schreibman’s son, Shlomo, recalled, “One of the grandkids was watching a Cardinals game on TV with his grandfather. Knowing that Dad buys Cardinal hats for all the grandchildren, and seeing 50,000 fans with the red hats, he asked Dad if he bought hats for everyone there.”

Among the highlights of the evening was a specially designed cake with a Cardinals bird at its center.

Nearly all the attendees had been members of St. Louis’ Orthodox Jewish community. Abramowitz said that because the Orthodox community in St. Louis is small, it is also close-knit. However, group members are making efforts now to expand the WhatsApp group to Jewish St. Louisans with other backgrounds now living in Israel. 

Many of these St. Louisans have made deep contributions to the Jewish State, including Cheri Fox, who made aliyah in 1979. She helped found — and continues to help fund — Leket, Israel’s national food bank, which distributes surplus food to needy people.

Additionally, Fox has been involved with the Modern Orthodox Yedidya community in Baka, Jerusalem, which over the last 40 years has helped define a religious space for women alongside men in the Orthodox community and synagogue. What today are known as “partnership minyanim” — a term used to describe a religious Jewish prayer group that seeks to maximize women’s participation – are an offshoot of her community’s efforts. 

“Our efforts had a major impact on Modern Orthodoxy around the world,” said Fox, who is the daughter of Ambassador Sam Fox and his wife, Marilyn.  “People have taken these ideas and spread them all over the place… We have been working diligently to make the country a better place.”

Three brothers — Yosh, Joel and Shmuel Mantinband — also attended the reunion. Yosh Mantinband made aliyah in 1983. Today, he has four children and six grandkids. He works in high-tech and lives in the Judean settlement of Efrat.

Mantinband said that the three brothers made the decision to move to Israel independently — two siblings still live in St. Louis — but they feel the seeds were planted by their mother, who served as the first librarian of H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy in Olivette. She was president of the local Hadassah chapter and ran St. Louis’ Jewish Meals on Wheels program for many years.

“I would tell St. Louis families to come on over,” Mantinband said, encouraging others to make aliyah. He said when it comes to employment, “the situation in Israel is better than in America.”

Schreibman said that living in Israel is religiously fulfilling for him and his family.

“The Torah brought me on aliyah,” he added.

Fox first went to Israel as a teenager. She said she “found part of my neshama (soul) here.” She came back again during college and then moved permanently when she finished school.

However, many attendees said it doesn’t matter how happy they are in the Holy Land or how many years they are away from St. Louis — if they grew up in the Gateway City, a piece of their heart remains there.

“You always want the people you grew up with. Those are the strongest bonds,” said Zissie Gitel, who made aliyah in 1976. “It doesn’t matter how many years go by. If you grew up with someone, you pick up those bonds right where you left off.”

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