I’m a crafty person,” says Ophra Shoshtari, smiling.
Speaking to me via Zoom, it is clear that the friendly, 35-year-old mother of three is not particularly devious or scheming. Rather, her self-description refers to her skills in design, graphics, and visual arts.
Since moving to Israel almost 12 years ago, Ophra has developed her talents in art curation and is now channeling her skills into increasing greater awareness of art among residents of Judea and Samaria, where she and her family live.
Ophra was born in St. Louis and moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, when she was nine. Ophra, whose mother builds violins and whose grandmother had been an art teacher, gravitated towards art and recalls visiting the many museums in the Washington,DC area during her childhood. “When I was old enough, I could take the train by myself, and that gave me a great opportunity to be exposed to art,” she says. Ophra confesses that as a child, art was not her first love. “I loved art, but I wanted to be a singer-songwriter,” she says. “It turns out that’s not so easy to pull off and be observant.”
Ophra attended the University of Maryland, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Museum Studies in 2008. Unfortunately, due to the Great Recession of 2008, most of the museums in the Washington area, including government-run museums like the Smithsonian, had imposed a hiring freeze. “It was a horrible year to graduate,” she says.
On the other hand, the lack of employment opportunities led her to consider aliyah. The idea of moving to Israel was not entirely foreign to her. Ophra had studied in Israel-oriented Jewish day schools, had spent a year in Israel after high school, and had many friends living there. Her parents wanted to retire in Israel, and, she says, “there was nothing keeping me there.”
On December 31, 2009, Ophra arrived in Israel on a Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah flight. After studying Hebrew in ulpan, she went from gallery to gallery in Jerusalem, finding a job in a small commercial gallery. Ophra spent a year-and-a-half living in Jerusalem before moving to Haifa in 2011 to pursue graduate studies in the University of Haifa’s master’s program in Art History and Curation. Ophra not only gained a graduate degree but made valuable connections in her field, and soon got a job in a commercial art gallery in Tel Aviv, where, as a member of the gallery’s three-person staff, she learned a great deal about the sales and commercial part of the art world.
In March 2015, she married Shmuel Shoshtari, a native Israeli who speaks English fluently “and knows how to take care of things here.” Shmuel and Ophra moved to Netanya after they married, and Ophra continued working in Tel Aviv at the gallery before joining the staff at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2019.
Ophra and Shmuel, who had been considering purchasing an apartment in Netanya, visited Einav, a small, 250-family religious yishuv in Samaria (Shomron), and were pleased with its affordable housing and welcoming community. Soon after the corona pandemic arrived in Israel, Ophra, pregnant with her third child, was put on unpaid leave. After this ended, Ophra was on maternity leave following the birth of her third child and decided not to return to her job in Tel Aviv.
Between corona and the other goings-on, Ophra was home for almost a year, which gave her time to think about the future direction of her career. After speaking to children in Einav, Ophra had an idea. “I gave a talk to the youth in Einav about museums and the arts, and none of them had ever been to an art museum,” says Ophra. “It was really sad because I worked in an art museum, and I saw kids there all the time.”
Ophra decided to increase the awareness of art among the youth of Judea and Samaria. In an attempt to gauge the interest in art in the area, she found a Facebook group, ‘Artists of Judea and Samaria,’ an English-speaking group of about 100 artists and crafts specialists living in the area. Ophra approached the head of the group and asked if it could be expanded to Hebrew-speaking members. He agreed, and today, the group numbers 200 artists. Ophra wasn’t finished; “I wanted to see what more I could do,” she adds, saying that there are very few art galleries in Judea and Samaria.
She concluded that the best location for a non-commercial art gallery would be Ariel, with its university, its relatively large community of retirees, as well as the many art-appreciating Russians who live there. Ophra approached the Ariel Development Fund with her project idea, and she is currently working to realize her vision of creating a non-commercial art gallery for area residents. Designing and developing a gallery requires a great deal of work on different levels, and Ophra is writing and reviewing grant proposals, preparing exhibit ideas, and working on obtaining a physical location. She hopes to open the gallery in Ariel within the next year.
In the meantime, Ophra is working at the grassroots level and is developing an educational program in art history for children ages eight to 12 on her yishuv. The objective is to attract them to art at an early age. “I want to reach as young an age as possible,” she explains. “It is important to do it early so that children feel comfortable with art and feel comfortable criticizing art as well. It is important to me that people can walk into an art exhibition and say, ‘This isn’t art.’” Her students will be learning about DaVinci, Michelangelo, Seurat, Van Gogh, Monet, Cassatt, Kahlo, Morris Lewis, Paul Klee, Picasso, and others, while learning to draw replicas of some of their famous works.
She says that she encourages people to express their opinions when it comes from an educated background. “If you have been exposed to a lot of art, then when you say ‘this is not art’ to me, it has a lot more meaning than if you don’t have that background.”
Ophra says that art helps people understand the viewpoints and thoughts of “the other.” “When an artist makes a fine art piece, there are ideas in the art. It may be the philosophy of art or a specific subject, or something very personal. There is something in there that the artist is trying to say. It can be subtle, which allows the other person to approach the work, take it in and take the message.”
Between her work promoting art in Judea and Samaria and raising her children – Boaz, 5, Tzruya, 3, and Nachshon, 1 with her husband – Ophra doesn’t have much time for many hobbies, though she made the curtains in their home and sewed her wedding dress. In the wake of the pandemic, she began baking bread and now makes sourdough bread once a week. Two of her brothers are married and living in Israel, and her parents are hoping to retire to Israel in the next year or two.
“I have a really nice life here,” she says. “I can’t imagine still being in America.”
I look at how things have progressed there and changed there, and, as crazy as politics are here, I am happy that I am not there. I feel safer here in terms of my Judaism. I love that the buses wish me ‘Chag Sameach’ and that no one is scared to show that they are Jewish and religious.”
She continues to ply her craft of art curation and education, helping people develop an appreciation and love of art.
“What I hope to achieve is to make people – both young and old – comfortable with art and give them the questions that they want to ask when they are with artwork so that when they are somewhere else, and they have the opportunity to see art, they will want to, will feel comfortable with it and can understand it. I want them to be exposed to what is here and in Judea and Samaria, and appreciate the local art, but through the local art, to reach a greater understanding about art in general.”
Quite a crafty woman, indeed.