Scouting group keeps local Israeli families connected to Jewish State

The local troop of Tzofim, Israeli scouts, are shown at Temple Israel on Nov. 13 during the 16th Annual commemoration of the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Photo: Relli Abman

BY GALIT LEV-HARIR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

For 17-year-old Doron Grossman, transitioning from her kibbutz in Israel to high school in St. Louis wasn’t easy. When she arrived here a few months ago, the teen knew very little English and felt somewhat out of place. Then she started attending meetings with Shevet Keshet, the local troop of Tzofim, the Israeli scouting movement.

“It’s been great meeting other Israelis and making new friends,” says Doron.

Soon after she joined, Doron began leading activities for other Israeli children who live here in St. Louis.

An estimated 180 Israeli families live in the greater St. Louis area. Many of them are not affiliated with American Jewish organizations; rather, they want a place where their children can speak Hebrew and engage in activities that will strengthen their connection with Israel. Tzofim provides that opportunity.

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In many ways, Tzofim is similar to Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts of America. Like the American organizaitons, the Israeli one also focuses on character building, leadership, outdoor skills, a commitment to pluralism and democracy, and service to the community. However, unlike its American counterparts, Tzofim is co-ed. It also emphasizes a connection to Israel and Zionism and is youth-led (as opposed to adults as troop leaders), and all of the activities are in Hebrew.

Children in Shevet Keshet are divided into groups according to their grade, and each group is distinguished by the color of the tie on their uniform. The groups meet once a week, on Sunday afternoons, at Temple Israel. In addition, there are a number of special events throughout the year, including outdoor field trips, a spring camping experience, ceremonies and celebrations.

Scouts in high school, known as the “shachbag” (an acronym for the words “older level”) also attend several leadership seminars throughout the year, where they have the opportunity to meet Israeli scouts from across the United States. All of the programs for grades 3-8 are planned, organized and led by the scouts in grades 9-12, with support and supervision from an adult scouting coordinator and parent volunteers.

For the past two years, Shevet Keshet has performed at the community Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut ceremonies at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center. This year, the troop also held a memorial ceremony at Temple Israel for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Many of the kids didn’t even know who Yitzhak Rabin was or why he was important,” explains Meytal Peleg, the troop’s adult scouting coordinator. “So we designed an activity that included an exhibit about Yitzhak Rabin’s life and achievements, and that focused on the concepts of peace, tolerance, and violence. Then the kids participated in discussion groups, where they asked questions, and we talked about our hopes for peace. Afterwards, we concluded with a memorial service.”

Eyal Abman, 11, says his favorite thing about Tzofim is the team-building games. Eyal came to the U.S. a little over a year ago, and even though he has since learned to speak English almost perfectly, he still likes being able to play with other kids in Hebrew. “Tzofim is a place where I can play with my friends and just be myself,” he says.

“What I like best about Tzofim are the outdoor activities,” adds Noya Shenhav, 12. “Like when we went to Castlewood Park and we learned how to use sticks to build a shelter.”

Some of the Israeli parents in St. Louis participated in Tzofim when they themselves were children. One such parent is Hanoch Vilnai, who began his scouting experience when he was 10 years old, became a counselor when he was in high school, and then-after he completed his army service-served as an adult scouting coordinator for a troop in Israel.

“Tzofim taught me leadership, responsibility, and teamwork,” he says. “Many of the activities in Tzofim involve building structures out of natural materials that you find in your environment. In order to build such structures, you need to be creative, use good planning and organizational skills, and work together cooperatively. All of the skills that I learned in Tzofim are skills that have helped me be successful in my life.”

Another parent, Milene Halperin, joined Tzofim shortly after she moved to Israel. Says Halperin, “I was 9 years old when my family moved to Israel from Morocco. At the time, I didn’t understand much Hebrew, but all of my friends were going to Tzofim, and they convinced me to go with them. As I got older, I began to understand the Zionist component in all of the activities. There is no question that Tzofim strengthened my connection with Israel.”

Although the majority of the children in Shevet Keshet have Israeli parents, there are a few, such as Karyn Lisker, whose parents are not Israeli but rather originally from Mexico. Here in the U.S., Karyn, 10, attends Solomon Schechter Day School and Traditional Congregation.

Karen’s mother, Marcia, says, “Tzofim gives my daughter something that she can’t get from day school or synagogue, and that’s a love for Israel. Plus it really helps her Hebrew.”

The Israeli scouting movement began in Israel in 1919. It wasn’t until 1995 that the first North American troops were created, in response to a growing number of Israelis living in the U.S. Today, more than 1,500 children throughout North America participate in Tzofim.

The St. Louis troop is the only troop in the Midwest and the smallest in the U.S., currently with 35 members. However, last year St. Louis sent the largest delegation of any troop in North America to participate in a year of community service in Israel.

“The Israeli office was thinking of stopping support to our troop, but then they saw how committed our kids are,” explained Peleg, the troop coordinator. “They were really surprised when six of our kids decided to volunteer for social service in Israel. That shows that our program is really successful.”

Peleg hopes to expand the program to serve more children, both Israelis and non-Israeli children who want to speak Hebrew and interact with Israelis as well as develop a Zionist identity.

Interested parents should email [email protected]