The St. Louis native at the helm of the Oklahoma Israel Exchange

Edie Roodman works to create connections with Israel in agriculture, commerce, culture and education

Edie Roodman (at right) is shown on a mission trip to Israel with friends formerly from St. Louis.

ELLEN FUTTERMAN, Editor-In-Chief

Often, when we write about people who grew up in St. Louis but went on to prominence elsewhere, that elsewhere is the East or West Coast. Not so for Edie Roodman.

Roodman staked roots in Oklahoma City, Okla. where she was the executive director of Jewish Federation there for 25 years, before becoming executive director of the Oklahoma Israel Exchange (OKIE) roughly five years ago.

Between those jobs, she retired, briefly. As you’ll come to learn, at 70, Roodman is not one to sit still for long. She says the eldest of her three adult children, daughter Erielle, recently said, “Mom, you are so busy. But you need to be busy. It’s who you are.”

In her current position at OKIE, she’s focused on exchanges between the state of Oklahoma and the state of Israel as they pertain to four main areas – agriculture, commerce, culture and education. For example, through a collaboration among the American Israel Friendship League, OKIE and high schools around the state, sophomores and juniors in both Oklahoma and Israel can participate in a 10-day exchange program whereby students in Oklahoma live with Israeli families and go to school there and vice-versa.

ADVERTISEMENT
Odd Couple Housing Digital Ad


“We underwrite the expenses for them,” said Roodman, who grew up in Olivette, graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School and attended United Hebrew Congregation. “It’s been a tremendously successful program.

“Next year, we are partnering with Tishomingo High School, which has a very high percentage of Native Americans, and we’re very excited about that because we have a very special relationship with the Chickasaw Nation. We are so pleased that the Chickasaw Nation has agreed to help underwrite students at Tishomingo and provide this experience for them.”

Roodman said that in the 13 or so years that OKIE has been championing this program, “maybe we’ve had two Jewish (Oklahoma) students, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head.” Oklahoma City has a Jewish population of 2,500 while St. Louis has about 60,000.

Nevertheless, Roodman is quick to add that the students who do participate, both from Oklahoma and Israel, “develop warm, close personal relationships with the families and continue that communication and exchange back and forth for many years. It’s a bonding experience for life.”

Roodman knows firsthand about Israel’s potency when it comes to lifelong relationships. She met her husband of 45 years, Dr. Eli Reshef, while spending the summer on a western Galilee kibbutz as a college student at Arizona State University. Her younger sister, Janie Roodman Weiss, who still lives in St. Louis, had planned the trip for the two of them, but “bailed,” as Roodman puts it, a few days before it was time to go.

“She had a boyfriend at the time and didn’t want to leave him,” said Roodman. “She had made all the arrangements. She even arranged to take out loans through Jewish Federation.

“When she said she wasn’t going, everyone assumed I wasn’t going either. I don’t think anyone believed I would go so far away on my own. I had been to Miami Beach, that’s it.”

But go Roodman did and was assigned to a kibbutzim family who had a son that made her heart flutter when she met him.

“He was in the (Israeli) army, so I didn’t meet him until Shabbat dinner,” Roodman recalled. “I heard bells and whistles – I never met anyone that good looking who was standing so close to me. I flirted heavily.”

Roodman went back to college, became a high school teacher in Phoenix, but returned to Israel for two more summers while Reshef completed his army service. She figured once he was done, the two would travel in Europe, but things didn’t go exactly as she had thought.

“He did make plans to travel in Europe, but without me,” she said laughing. “I was teaching at the time and made arrangements to bring a group of students to Europe. He knew my itinerary. He telegrammed me when I was in Austria and said, ‘Let’s meet in Paris,’ and we did.”

He eventually followed her back to the United States, where the couple eloped.

They moved to Houston so that Reshef could attended medical school at Baylor University, then were off to Birmingham, Ala. for his residency. It was in Birmingham that Roodman got her first real taste of working in the Jewish communal world as a program coordinator at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, which fell under the auspices of Jewish Federation.

“I saw what working for Federation was like and knew I wanted to do that,” she said.

When they moved to Louisville, Ky. for Reshef’s fellowship, Roodman found a job as the assistant executive director at Jewish Federation. Louisville has a Jewish community of 10,000.

In 1990, when Reshef got his best job offer in Oklahoma City, Roodman worried that moving there would mean an end to the work she so enjoyed. After all, the Jewish community in Oklahoma City was a quarter of the size of Louisville. “I didn’t think there would opportunity for me in any kind of Jewish capacity,” she said.

So she volunteered at the Jewish Federation there. Within a year, its executive director left for a similar position in Birmingham, and in 1991, Roodman took his place as executive director of Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City.

“I retired in 2016, figuring I’m done, and had 25 blessed years. I had no intention of going back to work,” she said, adding that she did agree then to become president of the board of OKIE.

Maybe she had no intention, but when OKIE’s executive director, who happened to be one of Roodman’s closest friends, married and moved to Minnesota (the wedding took place in Roodman’s backyard), Roodman decided to rejoin the workforce fulltime.

“I said to my executive committee at OKIE, let me go as president and hire me as executive director. It was a transition that made complete sense, and it’s been a pleasure ever since.”

To date, Roodman has been to Israel more than 50 times, leading many trips for state dignitaries and elected officials. She says she became “smitten” with the country the first time she arrived there.

“I fell madly in love with Israel,” she said. “My children always say ‘Mom, you wear Israel goggles. You don’t see anything negative.’ I do, it’s not a perfect country, but I see much more of the positive about Israel and the positive impact Israel makes on the world, that really flies under the radar. I am an incredibly proud Jew – I feel Israel empowers us as Jews. We are fortunate to have a country that we can call our own.”

Still, Roodman describes herself as a “mixed-up Jew,” explaining that she grew up in an ultra-Reform household (“there was bread in the drawer at Pesach”) with a father who was an ardent Zionist.

“My connection to Jewish life is not so much through my Judaism but more about my feeling about being Jewish,” she said.

“We sent our children to Jewish Day School when we came to Oklahoma City for a few reasons. It was a good private school, and it was affordable. We were in a community where they wouldn’t be privileged to have a lot of Jewish friends and we wanted them to be seeped in Jewish values.

“What ended up happening for Eli and me is that we became more observant as our kids became more observant. I’d say our kids are Conservative. They (and their families) all live on the Upper West Side in New York City and usually celebrate Shabbat together every week.”

The fact that Roodman’s children and four grandsons all live in New York makes her want to be closer to them. She enjoys family time together.

But now that the pandemic has eased and more people are traveling, she also looks forward to resuming trips to Israel and working on more exchanges. She’s brought in Israeli agricultural experts who have traveled to every corner of Oklahoma, helping farmers throughout the state advance their techniques. She is currently working on sending a Native American art exhibit to Israel.

OKIE will celebrate its 30th anniversary in December. Maybe then, says Roodman, it will be time to retire. Then again, maybe not.

“I tiptoe around this (decision). When I’m with my kids and grandkids in New York I think, why do I need this job?” said Roodman, who is famous for her use of glitter at any and all events she hosts. “Then I get home and am so fueled by what I do.”