Israeli teens foster connections between Israel and St. Louis


Israeli teens (from left to right) Shelly Udovik, Eshel Ben Dor, Roi Mast and Maya Shapira take part in the 2021-2022 St. Louis Shinshinim Program.

MOLLY LEVINE, Ohr Chadash Teen Page

This past August, as summer vacation came to an end and the religious school year began again, you may have noticed four new faces at your congregation or school.

From speaking on the bimah during Friday night services to teaching Sunday morning religious school classes, these Israeli teenagers chosen for the Shinshinim program positively affect the St. Louis Jewish community through their passion for their country.

Shinshin is the Hebrew acronym for shenat sherut, which translates to “year of service.” The Shinshinim program is run through the Jewish Agency for Israel in partnership with Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

During what could be considered their gap year, the mostly 18-year-old Israeli high school graduates volunteer in Jewish communities across the globe, deferring their army service for one year. As a Shinshin, they take on the significant job of educating those of all ages within the community about Israel and the culture of their country.

Eshel Ben Dor, 19 and the oldest of the Shinshinim, traveled to St. Louis from Herev-Le’et, a small moshav north of Tel Aviv. During her year living in the United States, Ben Dor has enjoyed holding the Shinshin title at Temple Emanuel as well as with the Israeli Scouts.

Ben Dor’s interest in exploring communities outside Israel started from a young age.

“I traveled a lot as a kid, and I went to a bunch of different countries,” Ben Dor said. “I have seen the Jewish community in each different country, and I was really interested because each community is super different from each other. When I discovered the Jewish Agency program, I felt like I could learn a lot from it, and meeting new people is always a plus.”

Roi Mast is from Allone Abba, a small town in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. While in St. Louis, Mast is spending his time at United Hebrew Congregation and Kol Rinah Congregation.

After previously traveling to the United States and being exposed to different forms of Judaism, Mast became intrigued with the idea of traveling to different Jewish communities.

“To me, my first interaction with the Jewish community was when I first went to a Jewish summer camp in Michigan called Tamarack,” Mast said. “I went as a camper and then as a counselor. It exposed me to Reform Judaism and the whole experience of being Jewish outside of Israel. I felt like I gained a lot from this experience. I became more independent, mature and I gained a lot of self-abilities. So I felt like it’s the time for me to give back and really show what I can give to the Jewish community after I gained so much.”

Shelly Udovik came here from the northern Israel city of Yokneam, a sister city of St. Louis. Udovik is working as a Shinshin at the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

She explained the in-depth and prolonged process required to be accepted into the program.

“This is a long thing,” Udovik said. “You need to have interviews and [meet with] psychologists. You need to actually learn how to work in a team, and you need to learn how to wait for answers. If you’re a part of this program, a part of this whole thing, you need to know that it’s going to take time and that good things take time.”

Despite the demanding process, the wait proved worthwhile and rewarding. In addition to their role as educational leaders, Shinshinim participate in a wide variety of events within the Jewish community and enjoy creating relationships with others.

Maya Shapira came here from her home in Haifa, a northern Israeli port city, and eagerly took on the role as Shinshin at Congregation Shaare Emeth.
Shapira, as well as the other Shinshinim, spend their days in a variety of locations with groups of people with whom they made meaningful connections.
“My days are really diverse, which I really like,” Shapira said. “I get to work with a lot of different ages. I work with preschoolers and religious school kids from kindergarten to eighth grade. I also do youth group and some high school programs.”

During their time in St. Louis, the Shinshinim have felt warmly welcomed by those within the community, including their host families. During their time in the United States, each of the Shinshinim lives with five to six host families that are connected to one of the congregations or Jewish organizations. For eight- to 12-week periods, the Shinshinim stay with a family, adapting to American food, culture and lifestyle with the help of their hosts.

“The idea is that we are supposed to be hosted by a family that belongs to one of the organizations that we work at, so we have a further connection,” Ben Dor said. “It’s really fun. You can get really special connections with a family, and you feel like a part of the family. All of the host families are amazing people who are willing to help someone they don’t know. You also really feel the culture when you are with the host family a lot. You’re really living American.”

As a result of becoming accustomed to this new environment, the Shinshinim are able to develop an abundance of skills and implement them into their everyday lives. They also are able to open their eyes to a different way of life.

“I think it made me independent even in the smaller things, like doing laundry, cooking and dealing with insurance, which I would never deal with [in Israel],” Shapira said. “This year [has made] me figure out a lot of things about myself. I’ve learned how Judaism takes a large part in my life. I have had a lot of new experiences, and I think they made me much more open to different cultures. It made me realize a lot of things about the world, and I really enjoyed that experience.”

The Shinshinim also have provided effective and engaging educational experiences for young Jews here.

“I think our job as Shinshinim is to tell about Israel from our eyes,” Udovik said. “I want to leave the kids with a really deep love for Israel because they want to, not because they need to. I think it’s really important to leave [our] deepest love for Israel.”

When first arriving in the United States, the Shinshinims’ love for their own country was apparent, and it has continued to grow. Their hope is for young Jewish Americans to establish connections among themselves and Israel and to develop a love for the nation of the Jewish people.

“I became superpatriotic and more connected to Israel,” Mast said. “I think it really benefited me because I love my country, but now I love it even more. I think one of the main reasons we came here is because it’s really easy to connect to the perspective of a young person, especially for kids.

“When we build relationships and we connect to people and we maintain this, they will have more of a will to learn about Israel and to connect and even one day get to Israel.”

At the end of May, the Shinshinim will travel to summer camps. Upon returning to Israel, almost a year after they arrived in St. Louis, the Shinshinim will fulfill their Israeli army service.

Ben Dor will hold a military position as an air traffic controller. Mast is not certain what his role will be, although he is interested in intelligence. Udovik will be a medical instructor, and Shapira plans to hold a role in the military relating to psychology.

Ohr Chadash Teen Page writer Molly Levine is a junior at Marquette High School.