When Temple Israel began to look for an interim religious school principal for 2012-2013 term, the search committee had a set of criteria they knew would be required for the position.
It was important the hire someone with “Jewish education teaching experience,” said search committee member Jennifer Kirshenbaum. “The position is responsible for the successful organization and operation of the religious school for matters relating to students, teachers and parents.”
Fellow committee member Andrea Siegel agreed, saying, “We wanted someone who would be responsible for the day-to-day activities of the religious school. This includes being the liaison between the students, teachers, parents and clergy. This person needs to be able to communicate effectively with all four of these groups.”
When Ariella Lowensohn’s resume was forwarded to the search committee, it was “a godsend,” Rabbi Josh Brown said. “She sort of came out of nowhere. It was really great timing.”
Of course, Ariella didn’t come from nowhere. She moved to Omaha from New Orleans, where she had completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at Tulane University. After receiving degrees in political science, anthropology and Jewish studies, she turned her attention to earning a Master’s degree in cultural anthropology.
“It just happened by accident,” Ariella said. “It turns out that if you’re obsessive about scheduling and organization you can do a triple major in four years and get started on your masters and never have a class before 11.”
Originally from Los Angeles, Ariella applied to a number of schools, but never gave serious thought to going to some foreign state like Louisiana. As far as her southern California community was concerned, “nothing exists outside of the UC’s [the Universities of California] and the Northeast.”
But Ariella was heavily recruited by Tulane’s admissions office, even though her grades were average, she said. She received email after email practically begging her to apply. She finally relented, “just to get them off my back.”
Tulane was the first school to send her a letter of acceptance, and Ariella figured the least she could do was pay the school a visit.
“I saw the campus for three hours before I put down my deposit,” Ariella said.
What appealed so much to Ariella was Tulane’s commitment to the community around it. The school president, Scott Cowen, told the visiting would-be freshmen that volunteering in and around New Orleans was just as important as their studies, an attitude that Ariella was already familiar with.
“I had this ideal that I’m going to save the world,” Ariella said. “If I make these big statements like, ‘I want to save the world’ … there’s a place in my own country that really needs my help right now and I have the opportunity to go.”
And she did.
In addition to getting her education at Tulane, Ariella also stumbled across another important piece of the story that led her to Omaha: her fiancé, Joe Rohr, who just finished his first year of med school at UNMC.
Ariella knew she was going to move to Omaha after receiving her Master’s degree. What she didn’t know was that a job would basically be waiting for her when she arrived.
“I just moved here for him. I know nobody here except for his friends. I have no job,” Ariella thought when she first came to Omaha. Fortunately, “I got my first call about this job the day after I moved here.”
When Temple Israel’s search committee first saw Ariella’s resume, they were immediately impressed.
“My first impression of Ariella when I saw her resume was that she is highly motivated and has chosen experiences and education that all revolve around Judaism,” Jennifer Kirshenbaum said.
“I was impressed with how she’d worked with all different age groups ranging from preschool through high school,” Andrea Siegel said. “I liked that she worked at her synagogue when she lived at home and sought out a Temple to continue working and volunteering when she went to college.”
When she was asked to come in for an interview, Ariella wasn’t exactly a stranger to Temple Israel. She and her fiancé had attended services once when she had come to Omaha for a visit.
“I liked it,” Ariella said. Temple Israel made her feel comfortable and welcome, feelings that seemed to come through during the interview process.
“After meeting Ariella, I was instantly caught up in her positive energy,” Siegel said. “She has a passion for Judaism and knows there isn’t just one way to keep kids of various ages engaged in their Jewish education.”
While Ariella is still in the process of meeting with teachers and parents, she has a strong idea of what she wants her tenure as religious school principal to emphasize.
“I hope to bring to the children the idea that Judaism does not live only in the synagogue, that it can be a part of your life, and it can be a positive or fun part of your life,” Ariella said. “Judaism is not sitting in services being bored, listening to someone talk about something you don’t understand.
“I love that Judaism has an emphasis on education and argument … I think it’s a great way for us to learn to think critically. I like that my rabbi doesn’t say, ‘This is what is and this is what you will believe.’”
Ariella wants to impart upon the children of Temple Israel that “they don’t just have to see something and accept it or reject it, they can make it their own.”
The search committee strongly believes that Ariella was the right choice to help lead Temple Israel’s religious school in this time of transition.
“Ariella will bring a fresh voice to our religious school while understanding and embracing our customs,” Siegel said. “She is comfortable communicating with both kids and adults which is vital in her position. Ariella came across as someone who was ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work.”
Jennifer Kirshenbaum also praised Ariella’s passion for Jewish learning and education.
“Students, teachers and parents will love her extreme enthusiasm for Judaism,” Kirshenbaum said.