Once just for teens, Israel scholars program expands to adults

Rabbi Michael Rovinsky (left) is pictured with an adult class of the Galia and Milton Movitz-Senator John Danforth Israel Scholars Program.  Galia Movitz is seated in the front row, second from left.

By David Baugher,Special to the Jewish Light

The Galia and Milton Movitz-Senator John Danforth Israel Scholars Program isn’t just for teenagers anymore. 

The initiative, premiered by the Jewish Student Union as a way to educate and empower high schoolers on Mideast affairs, has now expanded to include an adult version. The first semester of the adult class opened with 17 students in September.

“Parents were calling me whose children were in the teen program and saying ‘Our kids never share anything with us about school but when they come home from your class on Monday nights we have to sit there for an hour and they want to tell us everything that they learned,’” said Rabbi Michael Rovinsky, who teaches the session. “‘Why don’t you offer this class for adults?’”

Rovinsky said he originally conceived of the teen program when he saw a young Jewish woman heckle visiting Israeli soldiers during an event. Shocked at the reaction, he said he began looking into how young Jews felt about the Mideast.

“Sure enough, I found teen attitudes toward Israel were apathetic at best and often anti,” he said.

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After that, he began developing a curriculum with David Iken, a Clayton High School graduate. The resulting lesson plan borrowed from various others around the country with Rovinsky and Iken filling in the gaps to create something unique.

“There is no other program just like this but I can’t take credit for every single word and video,” Rovinsky said.

The classes were initially named for Danforth, Missouri’s longtime U.S. Senator, but the Movitzes began supporting the project as well and their names were added in April. The most recent round of classes for teens got underway this month while another 15-session semester for adults will open Jan. 14 under the auspices of the Jewish Federation.

So far, Rovinsky said the expansion of the class to older individuals has been a success requiring very little adaptation in the curriculum.

“The only thing we had to adjust with the adults was the discussion,” he said. “It is taking longer to get through because with the adults, some of them have a little bit of background and they ask very penetrating questions which creates for phenomenal discussion.”

Topics include the dueling narratives of the two sides in the conflict, the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the issue of media bias.

“They learn how to listen to a broadcaster or read a newspaper article and immediately within the first sentence or two, know the perspective from which the author is coming,” he said.

While the classes are educational in nature, Rovinsky said they also provoke feelings. Some participants even shed tears during a recent discussion.

“It is not just intellectual knowledge,” he said. “There’s emotion.”

Ladue resident Lori Sheinbein said she became interested in taking the class when she saw a friend’s books from it.

“Rabbi Rovinsky is very knowledgeable and very passionate about the topic. He makes it very interesting,” said the 49-year-old B’nai Amoona congregant. “This class is taking you all the way from the very beginnings of the Bible right up to the conflict that we have today.”

She said that she didn’t have a strong enough knowledge of the Jewish State before but she feels she’s learned a great deal now.

“It gives you the background so you can have conversations about Israel and defend Israel if you need to with people who may have different views,” she said.

By contrast, Galia Movitz did have a strong background in knowledge of the Jewish State. She’s a native of Israel. Still, she and husband Milton (a past president of the Jewish Light Board of Trustees), who have made more than 50 trips to Israel, are backing the program.

“We’re strong believers in Jewish education to begin with,” said Galia Movitz. “Being from Israel, anything that has to do with educating about Israel is close to my heart.”

Movitz isn’t just helping to fund the course. She’s taking it as a student. She likes to participate in the discussions by adding firsthand knowledge of the Mideast by one who has lived through some of its history. She resided in Israel during the Six Day War and went into the army just after the Yom Kippur conflict in 1973.

“One of the students said to me ‘To take the course is one thing but to take it when you are there is a whole different energy,’” she said.

She said she’s been very impressed by the discussions and may take the class a second time next semester. She’s heard others express a similar sentiment. 

Movitz hopes everyone in the community avails themselves of the opportunity.

“It is very important to have the facts so we can speak from a place of knowledge,” she notes.

Meanwhile, others across the country are taking notice and the initiative may eventually become a model that can be replicated elsewhere.

“The program is being used nationally,” said Rovinsky. “We’re slowly helping communities set up the program for their various JSUs and other organizations.”

The coming semester of adult classes has $325 fee with books costing another $50. Those interested in the next session should visit http://bit.ly/federation-classes or call 314-498-6279.