A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Best Year Ever! How these Israeli teens embraced living in St. Louis

Bill Motchan

For the past year, four Israeli teenagers have called St. Louis home. They are the seventh group of Israeli emissaries, known as shinshinim, who lived and worked in the Jewish community. The program is a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and local organizations. As the 19-year-olds prepare to return home in August, they shared highlights of their American experience with the Jewish Light.

After arriving in St. Louis last summer, the shinshinim quickly got acclimated to the Midwest’s sights, sounds, and weather.

Yehonatan Zohar (Bill Motchan)

Yehonatan Zohar [home—Yokneam Illit; assignment—Saul Mirowitz Community School]: “You hear about L.A. or Chicago or New York, but the only thing you know about St. Louis from watching movies and TV shows is the (Gateway) Arch. Coming here, I could see on Shabbat the people walking to shul. There are so many synagogues around the city, so it was surprising to see and feel and hear the number of Jewish people here.”

Naama Eldar Herz [home—Kibbutz Ramot Menashe; shinshin assignment—Congregation Shaare Emeth]: “My favorite thing about St. Louis is the people. It’s the connections that we made. I didn’t think I’d make such a huge connection with random people from the U.S. who are so different than me. And it’s pretty cool that we were in St. Louis the year the cicadas were here!”

Ofer Ashur [home—Meitar; assignment—United Hebrew Congregation]: “In Israel where I live it is very hot in the summer. The weather all over the year here was very different from what I know. There’s no snow in Israel. It’s crazy to see in one day here you can get all four seasons!”

Or Garti [home—Kfar Tavor; assignment—Kol Rinah]: “It has absolutely been the best year of my life. I really enjoyed it and I love the people here in the community.”

Shinshinim defer their mandatory Israel Defense Forces service for one year to be emissaries in the U.S. The timing of their experience was very much on the minds of the foursome after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. 

Naama Herz (with her favorite St. Louis photo “where the weather changes every five minutes”) (Bill Motchan)

Naama Herz: “It was overwhelming, and still is sometimes. It was extremely hard but the moment I got out of my room on Oct. 7, my host sister gave me a huge hug and I knew that I was in a good place. This is what I was supposed to be doing.”

Yehonatan Zohar: “I want to believe there is going to be peace. I have no idea how long it’s going to take. I just hope that at some point people will decide we want peace and to live our life and be happy, just love each other and do whatever we can in order to achieve peace in the world.”

Or Garti: “It was almost a relief to know that even though I’m not in the army right now I’m still helping in a different way. I’m helping raise awareness and teaching about Israel. All the support we received, it was just unbelievable how people cared.”

Ofer Ashur: “When we were growing up, the questions were ‘What are you going to do in your life?’ and ‘What you are going to do in the army?’ For every one of us it’s very meaningful and we want to do our service. It’s scary sometimes when you hear every day about soldiers getting killed. In time of war, it’s very different than the regular time to go to the army but I think every one of us can understand the importance of this.”

The goal of the program is to educate Americans about Israel and Israeli culture. The St. Louis shinshinim also absorbed a lot about American culture. They taught their American hosts about Israeli foods, and learned the pleasures of drive-through restaurants, toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake.

Or Garti (Bill Motchan)

Or Garti: “I just want them to see us as normal people and someone that’s not that different from them.”

Yehonatan Zohar: “It’s so easy to get everywhere. It’s so nice coming to a different country for a whole year and then finding so many people who want to go out and do stuff with you without even knowing you. They’ll say, ‘Hey come over for dinner’ or ‘Let’s go out bowling.’ It’s a very nice feeling, this love towards you.”

Naama Herz: “I just want to say thank you to the St. Louis community. The best part about this year was the connections we made with the host families. I hope they learned from me, but I can say I learned so much from them about American culture. Next year I’m going to celebrate Super Bowl Sunday with my family.”

Ofer Ashur (Bill Motchan)

Ofer Ashur: “There are so many good American TV shows—‘Friends’ and ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Family Guy.’”

The shinshinim also came to appreciate American slang.

Naama Herz: “’Dude’ and ‘Girl’ are my favorites. When I don’t know someone’s name, I can go, ‘Girl, come on, girl!’”

Yehonatan Zohar: “Brah. ‘What’s up, brah?’ In Hebrew it’s ‘Achi (אָחִי).’”

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About the Contributor
Bill Motchan, writer/photographer
Bill worked in corporate communications for AT&T for 28 years. He is a former columnist for St. Louis Magazine. Bill has been a contributing writer for the Jewish Light since 2015 and is a three-time winner of the Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish Journalism. He also is a staff writer for the travel magazine Show-Me Missouri. Bill grew up in University City. He now lives in Olivette with his wife and cat, Hobbes. He is an avid golfer and a fan of live music. He has attended the New Orleans Jazzfest 10 times and he has seen Jimmy Buffett in concert more t han 30 times between 1985 and 2023.