New initiative to focus on Israelis living in St. Louis

Ela Bokobza

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

St. Louis has welcomed a new shlicha from Israel through a new partnership between community organizations aiming to work with Israelis living in St. Louis. 

So far, the shlicha is enjoying her new surroundings.

“I have had not even one single day that I’m not invited to a family’s [home] — either Israeli or American — for dinner,” said Ela Bokobza, a native of Meitar in southern Israel.

But the 26-year-old is doing far more than breaking the ice at local tables. She’s also breaking new ground for shlichot. Her stay in St. Louis, funded mostly by a grant from the local Jewish Federation, is part of a new vision for the role, which translates roughly to emissary. Bokobza isn’t just bringing Israel to Americans but is also helping to bring the United States closer to Israelis living in this country.

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“Most shlichim are generally focused on working with the American Jewish community and teach them about Israel,” said Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the Helene Mirowitz Center of Jewish Community Life at the Jewish Community Center. “Her mission is primarily going to be working with local Israelis living in St. Louis and trying to find ways to connect them to the Jewish community here.”

Bokobza’s position is set to last at least a year and she will work with the JCC and two other institutions – Bais Abraham Congregation and the local chapter of Tzofim, the Israeli Scouts organization.

Horwitz said that connecting local Israelis to American Jewish institutions is an important goal for the JCC but it hasn’t always had a high level of success. Bokobza is the first full-time staff member dedicated to that effort.

“Currently, we have Israelis who are engaged or belong to congregations or with the J but we feel like there are a lot of others out there who are not,” Horwitz said. “Ela is someone who can work with them to connect them with the life of the Jewish community.”

Bokobza’s role is also unique for having that focus. She said that of the 300 shlichot from the Jewish Agency around the world, St. Louis is the only one she knows of where the job is primarily designed to connect local Israelis to resources in their communities. It was a big part of the reason she chose the Gateway City.

“I was interested in doing a shlichot from the Jewish Agency because I believe that the Jewish world and the Jewish community in North America have a strong and supportive relationship with each other,” said the Bar-Ilan University graduate. “I believe that people want to be part of something which is bigger than themselves. The Jewish community and Israel can help each other to reach their goals.”

Bokobza, who has completed her service in the Israeli army, studied criminology in school and spent time helping at-risk youth in her homeland.

Horwitz said she was interviewed for the position with several other candidates via Skype. He noted that her personable nature, knowledge and passion made her the right person for the job.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to reach out to members of the Jewish community in new and interesting ways. The Israeli community is one that we’ve always tried to engage,” he said noting that Bokobza will also help out at next year’s JCC summer camp. “When this opportunity presented itself to do that in a more sophisticated an enriched way, we were really excited.”

The other participating organizations are happy about it, too. Ilanit Michelson, head of the St. Louis chapter of Tzofim, said Bokobza is already working with camp counselors for her Israeli Scouts organization where she has developed a strong rapport with everyone.

“She is able to engage in conversation with different people in our community,” said Michelson. “That’s going to help people to trust her and bring her into different programs that the Jewish community is running or will run.”

Rabbi Hyim Shafner said that Bokobza will be working with his congregation’s Sunday school, which is geared toward Israeli children living in the area. The rabbi noted that he first saw the potential for a shlicha when he witnessed interactions between students at the school and the shlichim family from Torah MiTzion. 

“They really provided a bridge for these Israelis,” he said noting the difficulty sometimes encountered in spanning the cultural differences between Israelis and Americans. “They want to connect with the Jewish community but it is very hard because there isn’t that cultural connection.”

He said that it was suggested that an emissary from the Jewish State might be of use.

“What I noticed over the last year was that the Israelis were very connected to the school but they weren’t connected to the synagogue as much,” Shafner said. “The Israeli parents said, ‘You know, we really need an Israeli who is working at the school helping us to create programming for Israelis to connect to the synagogue and Jewish life.’”