Finding My Des Moines Jewish Community


Dec 2021

Featured Post


When I think back to my early days at the Federation, I would have never imagined my role would go beyond a college student Hebrew school teacher. Boy was I wrong.  Now, I leave a legacy as the editor of The Jewish Press, Judaic specialist for Gan Shalom Preschool and Beit Sefer Shalom, Engman Camp Shalom Director, social media manager and Drake University Hillel Federation liaison. To say I wore a lot of hats during my time here would be an understatement. But I am so thankful for the different hats I was entrusted to wear daily. The roles I served in played a part in many different aspects of the Des Moines Jewish Community.

I feel that throughout my years, I have been able to make both big and small differences in the community, that supported the overall mission of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines—“To enrich Jewish living through connection, education and compassion.”

From Part Time to Full Time

I grew up in Skokie, Illinois and moved to Des Moines in 2014 to attend Drake University. Skokie is a very Jewish Chicago suburb, and I was used to having my pick of delis for lunch and my neighbors having some understanding of the Jewish faith. When I moved to Iowa, and suddenly realized many of my new classmates had never even met a Jewish person before, I quickly turned inward, not wanting to draw attention to my Jewish identity. I still attended holiday services and a few Drake Hillel events, but I didn’t really feel I had a community at the start. That is, until my junior year of college.

Zavell at Howell’s Greenhouse on an Engman Camp Shalom field trip during the 2021 summer.

I don’t remember if a friend told me about working at Beit Sefer Shalom, or if Sophie Homonoff reached out to me directly. The opportunity came at a perfect time, as I was craving a way to rediscover my Jewish identity as a Jew in Iowa. Teaching at Beit Sefer Shalom was the perfect way to do this. I helped in various classrooms during my first year, and then, as a senior, was given my own classroom, fifth grade. Many of the students in my first class are in this year’s high school group, which I have had the pleasure of leading for the past three years.

It didn’t take long for David Copeland, who at the time was working on The Jewish Press with Mark Finkelstein (z”l), to learn I was a journalism student. He showed me the then newspaper and asked if I would be interested in working on it. Obviously, I said yes, and am extremely proud of how far the now magazine has come.

I came to realize that even though the Des Moines Jewish community was smaller than where I grew up, there was still a place for me here. I found myself wanting to do more for the community. Lucky for me, it seemed the community wanted to keep me around a little longer. When I graduated Drake, I started full time at the Federation, continuing my work on The Jewish Press, and taking on the role of Judaic specialist.

Making a Difference Through Education

It’s no secret. The Gan Shalom program is one of the very best preschool programs around. The teachers care so deeply about the children in their class. Their dedication to helping shape the early years of life are what make this program so special. I was honored to have been able to teach each class, two to three times a week, on all things Jewish. We covered the holidays, Hebrew letters, counting, and did a whole lot of singing and dancing. Watching these young students learn and grow is still one of my favorite and most rewarding memories during my time at the Federation. I definitely will miss their daily hugs and invitations to explore the outdoors with them.

Zavell teaching Judaics to a Gan Shalom class in the Sukkah at Caspe Terrace.

Having only one Hebrew school program in town, there is a special sort of connection these students have to one another. Many do not attend the same schools—many attend schools where they may be the only Jewish kid in their grade. But when they are at Beit Sefer Shalom, they are surrounded by other children who have one thing in common. Their Jewishness.

In my roles at Beit Sefer Shalom, I have been able to share my love for Judaism and Israel with the students. Over the past two years, I led the Israel program, where I teach students about the history, land and people of the Jewish State. My hope is that through my lessons, I am able to spark curiosity in the students and an eagerness to one day visit Israel.

The last three years, I led our high school group—bringing together 9th-12th grade students once a week to connect with each other. As I mentioned earlier, some of the students who started this year were in the first class I taught as a college student. Some nights, we would have ethical debates incorporating strong Jewish values, other nights we would have more of a social event. Usually our social events meant going somewhere for ice cream or playing hide and seek at Caspe. We also did a few volunteer events within the community. I always looked forward to our Wednesday evening meetings and formed such close relationships with these students that a lot of them call me “mom.” The name made its first appearance during my first summer as camp director, and has passed on from generation to generation of high school students ever since.

Zavell with Sidney Novak and Ella Friedman, dressed as the Frozen cast for a Purim party.

During my first summer full time, I was introduced to Engman Camp Shalom. Since school was out, I found ways to support the program and its staff. If you’ve ever heard of my famous homemade pizzas, they made their first appearance that summer. I have become quite efficient now when it comes to making pizza for a crowd. After that first summer, I knew I wanted to be more involved, and I was hired as the Camp Director.

Being Camp Director is not an easy job. But it is a rewarding one. Especially when we ran camp, successfully, the summer of 2020 during the pandemic and summer 2021 when COVID-19 was still a concern. All the hard work and stress of making sure the camp day was fun, everyone was safe, and all things were clean, was totally worth it when you saw a group of campers running through the sprinklers. Laughing and screaming—just being kids—after months of being stuck at home. Engman Camp Shalom allows kids to be kids. Campers are extremely lucky to have so much land to explore and an energetic staff. I can’t wait to see this program continue to grow in the coming years.

Connections, Both Near and Far

Over the last six years, I have had the privilege of attending a number of conferences to advance my skills and knowledge so that I can bring new ideas back to our community. My senior year of college, The Federation sent me to AIPAC in Washington, D.C. Attending AIPAC had been a lifelong dream of mine. Growing up, my grandma introduced me to the organization and would frequently speak about it with me. This experience allowed me to learn along so many other people of all ages who all had a connection to Israel.

Zavell at AIPAC in 2018.

I also attended the last in-person PJ Library International Conference before the pandemic hit. I still get goosebumps thinking about how powerful this conference was. Everything we spoke about was deeply rooted in Judaism, and the individuals I learned around had a great love for educating and supporting Jewish children. If you don’t already have your children or grandchildren signed up for PJ Library, make sure you do. It’s an amazing resource. You can even sign up as a grandparent and receive books to your home to have when family visits.

The last pre-pandemic trip I was able to make was to Israel, on the JNF Educators trip during the summer of 2019. JNF has always been an important organization to my family so you can imagine how excited I was to have this opportunity. I wasn’t the only Des Moines person on the trip either. Gan Shalom teacher, Juli Margolin, was my roommate and friend on the trip. In the span of about a week we hiked, visited museums and historical sites, ate delicious food and made lifelong friendships. I was the youngest person on this trip, and the friends I made I keep in contact with today (thanks to Zoom, we can “meet” every so often).

Zavell with Juli Margolin on the JNF Educators Trip Summer 2019 planting their tree, and unintentionally matching that day.

The Next Chapter

I didn’t know how to keep this article short. Truthfully, I could have written another ten pages about my experience and memories here at the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines. I am so thankful to have found my community, and worked with the amazing people who are responsible for keeping this place up and running. I hope to continue to watch the success of the different programs that call Caspe Terrace their home.

I know the experience I had here will only prepare me for bigger things in the future. In this next chapter of my career, I will work for Des Moines Public Schools as a community schools site coordinator. I am excited to bring the skills I have learned to this position, and grow them.

Thank you, Des Moines Jewish community, for supporting me these last six years. If you ever want to get in touch, I can be reached by email at Until then, L’hitraot!

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