Conference of Israeli emissaries marks local Torah MiTzion’s growth

Torah MiTzion Kollel’s international director Boaz Genut (left) and Gilat Gastfraind, shlichim to St. Louis, are shown during a breakfast Sunday at Bais Abraham Congregation, ending a four-day conference held in St. Louis. For a gallery of images from the events, visit Photo: Yana Hotter

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Boaz Genut has been back in Israel since 2006 but sometimes he still sounds like a St. Louisan.

“Someone picked me up from the airport and was a little confused on how to go. I said just take 170 south and I’ll direct you from there,” laughed the rabbi, now director for the Israeli-based Torah MiTzion Kollel. “It feels just like coming home.”

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Genut’s homecoming was made possible by the Torah MiTzion annual North American conference. Held here last weekend, the four-day event made its first return to the Gateway City in eight years, drawing dozens of participants from six other cities across the continent for seminars, speakers, a Shabbaton and a gala dinner at Clayton High School Saturday night to recognize honorees and raise funds for the organization.

About 200 attended Saturday’s gala but the center of attention were the 50 or so shlichim, or Israeli emissaries, who come to the United States often with their families, to teach Americans about the Jewish State.

Mickey Ariel, co-chair of the local Torah MiTzion development committee, said the family aspect of the program is important.

“These are Israelis who say goodbye to their parents and extended family and they come to the United States and Canada to provide a taste of Israel and a chance to educate Jewish communities about how wonderful Israel is and to give them a connection,” he said. “The children are shlichim, too. They also interact with people in their community.”

Torah MiTzion now has seven sites across North America and 19 around the world. Aryeh Gross was one of the participants from out of town. Stationed in Montreal, the young Israeli said he was enjoying his visit to St. Louis.

He said the shlichim do have an impact but it can only be seen over the long term.

“The difference that is made is one that doesn’t happen in four weeks or four years or maybe even 40 years,” he said. “It’s bringing a taste of Israel to Montreal, which is something we need to do every day.” Assi Gastfraind knows that. He and his wife Gilat are now experiencing their third year in St. Louis. They, another couple and two young women from the Sherut Leumi program make up the area’s adult contingent.

“The community really wants the programs that we do,” he said. “We were teaching at Epstein, Solomon Schechter and they really enjoyed it.”

Gilat Gastfraind said she was thrilled to be in a room with plenty of Hebrew speakers again but she noted that the conference also serves a bigger purpose.

“It gives pride to the community,” she said. “It makes them understand that Torah MiTzion is not six people. It’s actually a lot of people who are coming and care about the Jews here.”

The region’s other shlichim family, the Shachaks, are even newer to the area. Boaz and Yael just arrived here this summer.

Boaz Shachak said seeing the differences in mindset between Americans and Israelis has been both interesting and challenging. He said the dangers of the conflict in the Jewish State often compels Israeli youth to ask to deep questions about themselves, their Judaism and their purpose in the world thus allowing them to refine their identity. It’s a thought he tries to convey to young people here urging them to think about themselves and their faith.

“At the end of 12th grade, you go to college,” he said. “In Israel, you go into the army. The state of mind of a teenager [in America] is not ‘What am I doing here?’ Most of the time it is ‘How can I bring myself to a better point to succeed in life?’ We try to say, ‘Take your time. Take a break to think about yourself, about what you are doing here.'”

At the same time, Boaz Shachak feels there are things that Israel might learn from America as well, including the reliable nature of professional interactions in the United States.

“When people say something, they stand behind it,” he said of Americans. “It’s something that belongs to our Torah also. Our Torah expects Jews to stand behind their word, when you say something to do it.”

Barbara Ast, president of the local Torah MiTzion, noted that some say the two-to-four-year window during which visiting families remain in town isn’t long enough. She said that’s just the point however.

“It takes them awhile to learn our culture but we don’t necessarily want them to learn our culture,” she said. “We want them to bring their uniqueness to us.”

Ast said that uniqueness is spread through the many programs Torah MiTzion either leads or participates in, including Bnei Akiva youth groups, Derech Eretz Camp, classes, movie screenings and other events held in local day schools, synagogues and elsewhere.

All of that requires resources, of course. Hence, fundraisers like the weekend gala. Dozens of the year’s donors were thanked in the program for contributions ranging from $90 to $5,000.

The evening’s keynote speaker, Rav David Stav, co-founder and chairman of Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, praised the shlichim for doing “tremendous work.” His organization strives to build Judaic identity by searching for commonalities across the religious spectrum.

“After 60 years, we’ve developed in Israel, various methods of education in Torah, in Jewish life in general,” he said, “and the Americans should taste what we have achieved in Israel, especially when we want to cause the youngsters in the States to affiliate with Jewish life.”

Boaz Genut who, along with the Gastfrainds and Shachaks, was among the evening’s honorees, said he was glad to see the great progress the local Torah MiTzion had made since he started the branch in 2003, the last time St. Louis hosted the conference. Now back in Israel in a leadership role with Torah MiTzion, he said St. Louis changed him as much as he changed it.

“It was an eye opening experience for me,” he said, recalling how broken his now-perfect English was at the time. “You have to bear in mind that I was not on an airplane until the age of 28. The first time I ever left Israel was when I came here.”

But his reason for coming needed no translation.

“What brought me here is the notion that we are one people,” he said.