Shlichim build connections with Israel

Over the past five years, St. Louis Torah MiTzion Kollel has created an indelible mark on the local Jewish education landscape. Starting from scratch, Torah MiTzion Kollel brought Israeli shlichim (emissaries) — a family, living here a year or more, who serve as community educators, providing St. Louisans with a tangible connection to Israel.

First it was one family. Then it was one family plus two young Israeli women fulfilling their national service through the B’not Sherut Leumi program by serving as educators abroad.

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Now, Bais Abraham Congregation is partnering with TMK to host a second family of shlichim.

“We started with one family and now we have a staff of six,” said Michael Ariel, President of St. Louis Torah MiTzion Kollel.

Assaf and Gilat Gastfraind and their three children, Ariel, Amatai and Hallel are joining Chaim and Merav Possick, who have been in St. Louis with their three children since July 2008, and the Sherut Leumi educators, Sara Kamper and Tova Maimon.

The Gastfrainds say they are excited to be in St. Louis.

“We wanted a smaller community which will give us a chance to know everyone and be able to give each person what they need,” Gilat said. She is an occupational therapist, who is also licensed to teach kindergarten through third grade.

Assaf has his bachelor’s degree in education with a specialty in secondary education. He had been teaching elementary school when the couple saw the ad in the newspaper placed by Torah MiTzion Kollel looking for families with backgrounds in education to act as shlichim.

They responded to the ad and were interview by Boaz Genut who served as the first shlichim for the program in St. Louis. He now serves as the executive director of the organization in Israel.

“We were looking for something, meaningful thing to do,” Gilat said. “It all went so fast. God must have wanted us here very, very bad.”

The couple is excited about being close to Washington University and its students as well as being part of the broader Jewish community. They will be bringing their own unique twists to their teaching and programming.

“Most importantly, we will be adding the spirit of Israel to everything we do.” Assaf said. “Our home is open and we’re looking forward to meeting the community.”

Connections with Israel

Torah MiTzion Kollel’s shlichim can be found throughout the Jewish community: teaching at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy and Solomon Schechter Day School, providing expanded programming to synagogue religious schools, community-wide summer camp experiences, Hebrew Ulpan as well as offering other classes and other community-wide programming.

The shlichim provide a variety of programming through schools, synagogues and other venues to encourage the study of Torah, reinforce Jewish identity and strengthen the connection with Israel.

“They are here to provide a unique type of Jewish education using values found in the Torah with the perspective you can only get from someone who lives in Israel,” Ariel said. “It is important for Jewish individuals to identify with Israel as a focus of their Jewish identity.”

Bais Abraham’s Rabbi Hyim Shafner said the congregation saw the partnership with Torah MiTzion Kollel as a way to expand its educational offerings.

“Our growing congregation is very open and attracting a diverse community who have a great interest in learning and observance,” said Shafner. “Torah MiTzion Kollel teachers bring energy to our shul and to the St. Louis Jewish community at large.”

Shafner said the congregation has been enjoying a resurgence of energy and the renovation of their building. The Board of the congregation has been very supportive of the partnership, he said.

“It is important to invest in the main mission of congregation: people studying Torah, people praying and creating a strong community,” Shafner said.

Chaim and Merav Possick

Torah MiTzion Kollel shlichim Merav and Chaim Possick and their three children, Amichai, Eden and Itai, arrived in St. Louis in July 2008. They have been providing formal and informal Jewish education and programming in schools and throughout the community.

They both grew up in Ginot Shomron, a settlement in Samaria and have lived all over Israel. Chaim was born in Columbus, Ohio. His family made aliyah when he was three years old. Merav was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her family made aliyah when she was 10 years old.

“We both have a strong connection to American Jewry,” Merav said. She was part of Sherut Leumi program 10 years ago. The couple are education majors, which helps make them “a perfect fit” for the Torah MiTzion Kollel program, said Merav.

The couple is very active in the St. Louis Jewish community. They both teach classes at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy and Tichon and offer chevruta (studying in pairs) learning opportunities. They also teach a variety of other classes at various locations throughout the community. In addition, they coordinate the educational component with the Sherut Leumi programs.

“It has been a pleasure to work with the girls,” Chaim said. “We work very closely and plan everything together.”

Merav and Chaim run the B’nei Akiva Youth Program in St. Louis. The worldwide organization helps connect Jewish youth to Israel. Members work to live lives of Torah and Avodah. The program has been highly successful. “More than 60 kids get together every Shabbat afternoon at Young Israel,” Merav said.

The couple has also run the Torah MiTzion Kollel Derech Eretz summer camp held at Traditional Congregation. More than 100 kids participated during the three weeks the camp was held this summer.

“We had an Israeli style outdoor extreme program for eighth and ninth graders,” Chaim said. “It included hiking, camping and boating.” Typically Torah MiTzion Kollel families stay in the community for two to three years. The time away from family and friends in Israel can be very difficult. However, the warmth of the St. Louis Jewish community has been very welcoming, said Merav.

“Everyone has been so open, loving and accepting of what we are here to do — to bring modern Israel to the Jewish community,” Merav said. “We have made many close friends who fill in spaces when we are missing our families.”

The Possicks often host people for Shabbat and other holiday meals. They have a special connection to the teens since they both taught high school. They have many meetings and activities at their University City home.

“Whenever you meet us, you should see us as your own personal connection to Israel,” Chaim said. “Whether it is for chevruta learning, classes or programs, we want people to use us and invite us to share Israel with them.”