Program seeks to connect American Jews, Israelis in St. Louis

Galit Lev-Harir (right) is a council member with the Israeli American Council and started the Gvanim program in St. Louis. Photo: Eric Berger

Michal Grinstein-Weiss, a professor at the Brown School at Washington University, moved to St. Louis 20 years ago from a suburb of Tel Aviv. She was at one time a regular attendee at Bais Abraham Congregation, and her children attended its Shelanu Israeli Hebrew School.

But the school closed in 2018, so Grinstein-Weiss isn’t as involved in the Modern Orthodox synagogue. 

That lack of participation is emblematic of a larger lack of engagement in the Jewish community among some Israelis, Grinstein-Weiss said. In St. Louis, she sees two communities: Israelis and American Jews. 

“Ideally, we are one community, and we should be more connected,” she said. “In St. Louis, there are efforts to connect, but more needs to be done.”

That desire for greater connection brought Grinstein-Weiss on Sunday to the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Kaplan Feldman Complex for the second of five sessions of Gvanim, a leadership training program for Israeli Americans. 

The Israeli American Council (IAC) started Gvanim. The organization is predominantly backed by casino magnate and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam Adelson, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Galit Lev-Harir, a regional council member for IAC, said: “I think it would be great if, five years from now, when we look at the board of Federation or at the boards of synagogues or boards of other Jewish institutions here in St. Louis, to see Israelis active and involved on those boards, because that’s what I think is going to bring the two communities closer together.”

While IAC hosted President Donald Trump for a speech at a conference in December and presented Ivanka Trump with a “Friend of Israel” award at a gala in January, Lev-Harir and other organizers emphasize that Gvanim is not a political group and is not focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I think that there are some in the American Jewish community who feel alienated because of Israel’s politics,” Lev-Harir said. “I think someone can be supportive of Israel without agreeing with their politics, just like you can be supportive of America without agreeing with President Trump. I think for some Americans, when they think of Israel, all they see is the conflict. For Israelis, when they think of Israel, they think of their family, their friends, their childhood, the music, the food, so their connection to Israel has absolutely nothing to do with the conflict.

“We see Israel in different constructs, and I think there is a value in speaking and learning from one another,” she said. “If you talk with an Israeli and understand the shoes that they walk in, you start to see things from a different perspective.”

The Gvanim program here is among several around the United States, including ones in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. Fifteen Israelis in St. Louis signed up for the program, which is taught in Hebrew and features five eight-hour sessions. 

The three major topics are identity, community and leadership. 

At the session Sunday, the Israelis learned about the Jewish calendar and how that influences identity. They also  participated in a discussion of how to create events around Shabbat or holidays like Shavuot.

“In Israel, being Jewish is taken for granted because you are in Israel, and here you have to work for that,” said Yafit Magidash, an Israeli immigrant who lives in Berkeley, Calif., and facilitated the session Sunday and at other Gvanim programs around the country. “I want them to understand that whatever they are choosing or not choosing will influence the next generation.”

During the first meeting, participants interviewed two 20-something Israeli Americans and asked them how they feel about immigrating to the United States and what their feelings are about Israel. Participants also examined data showing how second-generation Israeli Americans are not as engaged in Jewish life as previous generations.

“That motivated me to work on it harder and [showed me] the need for leadership in the community to do this kind of work,” said Grinstein-Weiss, a mother of four. She would potentially like to revive the Israeli American Hebrew School at Bais Abraham or elsewhere. 

Mor Angel came to St. Louis six years ago from Be’er Yaakov, a town near Tel Aviv. He planned to stay only a few years while he managed a project with the utility provider Ameren on behalf of an Israeli company. But he and his family stuck around longer and plan to stay for the foreseeable future because “we like it, and we still feel like it’s an adventure. We give our kids things that are a little bit different than in Israel.”

Angel, a father of three, decided to participate in Gvanim because, he said, “I want to feel more connected to my community, not just the Israeli community but a little bit more broadly, the Jewish community, the American community.”

Angel said it was nice during the discussion about identity to see that “we are all trying to help give our kids a better future but also to remember who they are, who we are and their heritage as well. … It just was interesting to see in a group that everyone is more or less sharing the same conflicts.”