With an almost mystical mixture of Safedi kabbalah and Canadian sang froid, two Israeli women “shlichot” or emissaries have arrived in St. Louis aiming to infuse youngsters with Jewish wisdom and Israeli culture.
Shany Batit and Eliana Smith are the fourth annual pair of young shlichot from the Israeli Army’s Sherut Leumi (national service) program to be in St. Louis. Each year, thousands of religious post-high school women commit to two years of volunteer work in settings such as schools or hospitals before starting college. “It is only the best and the brightest of the senior Sherut Leumi women who are sent overseas as Israel’s representatives,” asserts Mickey Ariel, president of the Torah MiTzion Kollel which coordinates the St. Louis Sherut Leumi program with the generous support of the St. Louis Jewish Federation and the wider Jewish community.
“I wanted to come to a place where kids would get to know me; kids would come to me and hug me and say ‘boker tov’,” explains Shany Batit, a 20-year old resident of Safed, Israel’s northern center of kabbalistic mysticism. Tossing her head to the side with an impish smile, she continues, “I chose to come to St. Louis over larger communities because I wanted a place that was smaller and where people were warm.”
Her language, too, is warm, marked by her lilting Israeli accent and animated hand gestures. During the interview, her dark eyes sparkle, and her smile dazzles under her short perky buzz-cut hairdo, although she often glances away to “check up” on her students. And Shany has many, many students.
Twenty-year-old Eliana Smith is the more laid-back part of Israel’s dynamic duo in St. Louis. Like Shany, she is one of six children. She speaks perfect English and is a talented artist. “Most of my family does not live in Israel, and most of them are not affiliated, and I would like to give in a way that would actually enlarge my ‘family’,” Eliana explains. Last year, Eliana taught Judaism in Israeli secular schools all over the country, but laments that “because I didn’t spend appreciable time in any one place, I was not able to form lasting relationships.” She looks forward to doing just that here in St. Louis.
Shany and Eliana split their instructional duties with students of almost all ages at several different locations across the St. Louis Jewish community. Weekdays, they teach at Saul Mirowitz Day School -Reform Jewish Academy, Solomon Schechter Day School, and Epstein Hebrew Academy and they lead Sunday morning youth groups at Traditional and Young Israel synagogues. This summer, they will help to run the “Derech Eretz” camp together with past Sherut Leumi shlichot who are excited to return ‘home’ to St. Louis. Students can see Shany and Eliana coming from a distance, with Shany driving the donated, late-model, black Volvo as Eliana gives directions from the shot-gun seat.
Shani symbolizes part of the Sephardi or Oriental community of Israel. Her father is French Algerian and mother is Tunisian, while Eliana is the daughter of a Canadian father and an Australian mother who met in Israel. Strangely enough, both shlichot, despite their very different backgrounds, are from the ancient and holy town of Safed, with deep roots in Jewish wisdom, history and mysticism.
Apparently, the magic of the Safed kabbalist masters has rubbed off on Shany and Eliana, because they, too, are being asked to perform miracles: the duties of a team of ten educators. And apparently, they have achieved miraculous results in the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox schools around St. Louis.
“Helping our kids make a personal connection is part of what we want to achieve and Shany and Eliana play a beautiful role in helping to deepen that connection for us,” said Rabbi Allen Selis, Head of School at the Solomon Schechter Day School.
“Schechter is a Zionist school, so speaking Hebrew and being a part of Israeli culture is central to what we’re about,” added Rabbi Selis, whose very positive views were echoed by other educators.
Rabbi Shmuel Kay, head of school of Epstein Hebrew Academy, relates that “having these religious-Zionist young dynamic role models in our school is inspiring. These shlichot transform Israel from an abstract concept into a tangible experience.” He goes on to explain how on Tu B’Shvat, for example, they turned the whole school into a blossoming garden replete with the seven species of Israel. “Every month,” he continues, “they create an Israel-themed wall which presents a different Israeli personality in an interactive way that makes that personality come alive. They are a tremendous asset to our school.”
“Shani and Eliana bring a creative and dynamic lesson about Israel to each of our classes every week,” enthused Becky Lerner, Hebrew coordinator at Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy. “Their lessons incorporate not only the map, but also the life, people, history, Hebrew terminology, and much more of each region.”
“They began the year by showing the students how Israel fits into the world and regional maps,” she said. “They have developed an outline of the various geographical regions within Israel, and have already examined in detail the Negev, Arava and Golan regions with the students.”
Ms. Lerner explained how Shany and Eliana “work closely in conjunction with our Hebrew teacher, Yifat Shefts.” She said they also host a “Shulchan Ivrit” (Hebrew table) and have just begun a special interest “chug” (informal class) of Israeli cooking. “They also take an active part in the various Friday all-school activities,” added Lerner.
“Shany and Eliana have extremely positive interactions with our students. Together they are building authentic relationships, so the students have a strong personal connection with young Israelis, and know that they have a home in Israel. We also appreciate the mutual learning that takes place between our students and Eliana and Shany about the diversity of Jewish belief and practice.”
“We have a little piece of Israel here in St. Louis,” said Suzanne Sundy, director of the Sherut Leumi program in St. Louis. “We are eager to share these talented shlichot with the whole community as much as we can,” she added. “Our goal would be to bring four shlichot next year instead of two. They really are spread too thin. We would love to see them integrated into as many synagogue schools and youth movements as possible.”
For more information or if you would like your organization to connect with the Sherut Leumi shlichot, contact Suzanne Sundy at [email protected]
Barbara Ast is active in voluteerism in the St. Louis Jewish community.