Visiting Joplin; Notes of hope for Gilad Shalit

Cantor Ron Eichaker from United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis traveled with his wife, Heidi, to lead Shabbat services in Joplin, Mo. at the city’s sole synagogue, also called United Hebrew. Eichaker visited the site with one congregant of the Joplin synagogue who lost his home during the devastating tornado that struck the city. While the congregant, Steve Fisher, was speaking with a FEMA representative, Cantor Eichaker offered three prayers:  the afternoon Shabbat prayers facing East; then, facing St. John’s Hospital, he offered the Eil Malei Rachamim for the dead and a Mi Shebeirach for the living, the volunteers and professionals involved in the clean up.


Notes from home

The Jewish Community Center runs a nifty summer camp and, one of its strong suits is that it exposes campers to young Israelis who serve as counselors there. These young people are part of a program that teaches them to be shlichim – emissaries – for their country, as well as how to work with American and Canadian kids and live with a new family. The program sends more than 1,000 participants to roughly 200 Jewish summer camps throughout North America.

Recently at J Camp, two of the shlichim, Hagar Shimon, 21 and Liron Klait, 20, presented to campers the story of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was abducted five years ago and has been held hostage ever since by Palestinian militants.  They had the campers write letters to Shilat’s parents and family and also had the campers sign a large banner.

Stacy Siwak, who hosted Shimon and Klait at her home for a couple of weeks and who has three young children attending J Camp, read the letters written by the kids. “I was amazed at the campers’ notes – so articulate and heartfelt,” Siwak said. ” I was crying as I read them.  I was so impressed how well the kids seemed to understand the situation and how well they expressed that to Gilad’s parents.

“The kids were also given yellow bracelets to wear in honor of Gilad,” she continued, “and also blew up and placed yellow balloons all over camp.”

Shimon explained that she and her family often visit Shilat’s parents in their tent (they have been living in a tent in front of the prime minister’s house for the past year, in the hopes the government will do more to find their son).  So, when she returns to Israel, she will personally deliver the notes and banner to his parents.  

“She said she will take a picture of Gilad’s parents with the banner to send back to the J so the kids can see them,” added Siwak. 

Shimon shared some of the notes with me. One camper going into 9th grade wrote: “Gilad is not forgotten. We hope he is still healthy and we’ll keep him, his family, and all of Israel in our prayers here in America. Someday, hopefully soon, he will be rescued, and just maybe, Israel will be at peace.”

Several of the notes were less sophisticated, but every bit as sincere. “Come home soon,” wrote a second-grader who drew little smiley faces all over the message.

Working vacation

Joplin isn’t the place most people think to vacation especially given the deadly tornado that ravaged this southwest Missouri city on May 22. But that’s exactly where United Hebrew Cantor Ron Eichaker and his wife, Heidi, spent last weekend, reaching out to the Jewish community there.

Cantor Eichaker explained that the former student rabbi in Joplin had sent an email asking key members of the St. Louis Jewish community if they could lead Shabbat services in Joplin. The cantor quickly responded he could do so July 8-10, during his scheduled vacation.

When Eichaker and I spoke Monday, the day after the couple returned, there was much emotionalism in his voice. He said the experience had greatly impacted him as he related the weekend events, which included he and his wife driving through the devastated “hot zone” on more than one occasion.

“One side of 20th Street looked like any other neighborhood, and the other side looked like a nuclear disaster,” he said.

About 30 people turned up at United Hebrew in Joplin, the only synagogue there, for Friday night services. It had survived the tornado intact. Among the congregants was Paul Teverow, past president of the 34-family member congregation and professor of history at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. Teverow and his wife lost their home and all their possessions in the tornado. Their family dog also was killed.

Eichaker said when he arrived at the synagogue, the sound system was not operable. Luckily, he brought a portable wireless system with him, “just in case.” He said his sermonette reinforced the notion that the congregants were good people and that Joplin is a good place. “I told them, ‘your homes are good because you make them good.'” Afterwards, the cantor said congregants enjoyed several challahs he had brought with him that were donated by the kosher bakery Breadsmith. “They were closing their eyes and savoring every crumb,” he added.

At the end of our conversation, Cantor Eichaker related what he had told the congregation: “I am not going to leave you. The St. Louis Jewish community is not going to leave you.”

He suggested that United Hebrew in Joplin get a Skype account so that it can participate in an August Torah study session with United Hebrew here.  “Once we develop some programs of interest and long-term value, we will be better able to identify specific needs for the community (and ways people can help technologically),” Eichaker said. 

Contributions are still needed, said the cantor, especially toiletries and hygiene products as well as monetary donations. For those wishing to help, Jewish Federation is still collecting money ( as is the Union for Reform Judaism ( and click on “disaster relief”).

“Joplin’s clean up is still in its beginning stages,” Cantor Eichaker noted. “This is going to be a long, long process.  I would like us to take small steps toward establishing long and strong ties with our communities across the state.”


To Lois with love

Readers have been asking where is Lois Caplan’s column? Unfortunately, Lois suffered a nasty fall some weeks ago, which required her to be hospitalized. She is now undergoing residential rehabilitation therapy to get her back to her amazing self. Hopefully, we’ll all be kibbitzing with Caplan before long. Speedy recovery Lois. We miss you.