Temple Israel has a new blog!

Greetings! As you may or may not have heard, Temple Israel has a new website, and with it came a brand new blog!

Well, okay, it’s the same old blog, but it looks new. New format, more frequent updates, easier commenting. Hop on over and take a look.

And don’t forget to add it to your RSS feed by copying and pasting the link at the top of the page into your RSS reader.

Thanks, and we hope to see you over at the new site!

Summer Speaker Series Week 8: Howard Friedman, Tom Friedman, Sue Millward and Anne Shackman – Cass Street Stories

Last Friday, three of the four Friedman siblings, Anne, Sue and Tom (Howard was out of town), took center stage as that week’s Summer Speakers.

Anne Shackman started off by recounting the history of the Friedman family at Temple Israel, from their grandparents through their children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Did you know the Friedman’s grandmother helped design the original stained glass windows that hung in the sanctuary? The ones that were unfortunately destroyed during the 1975 tornado? I sure didn’t.

Anne shared her memories of religious school, and her “Bas” Mitzvah, as girls’ ceremonies were called back then.

Sue Millward also talked about her religious school experience, while Tom read an email from their brother Howard.

Howard shared an anecdote about how because he and Tom were born in the same calendar year their mother decided they should share their Bar Mitzvah, which was going to be in the fall, which meant they were supposed to study over the summer. But they went to camp in Wisconsin instead, and returned to Omaha without having learned a lick of their Torah portion.

Rabbi Brooks was not pleased with them.

Tom also talked about some of his youthful tomfoolery around the Cass Street Temple Israel, including sticking his finger in a light socket (“My best advice for young people is, Don’t do it”) and getting into an apparently profanity-laced argument with Rabbi Brooks, which sounded like it did not go in Tom’s favor.

Listening to the Friedman brother and sisters talk about not only their personal history with the Cass Street building, but their parents and grandparents, and then their children, really illustrated the history of the building, how long it’s been around, how much has happened within its walls.

It was also striking how the Cass Street building was home to so many generations of memories. Anne, Sue, Howard and Tom described confirmations, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, events that run the entire gamut of life experiences.

It was touching how many good memories they had of their time at the Cass Street Temple Israel, and it was heartening to see that even as they shared memories of Cass Street, they were able to look forward to the new building and the new memories that will be made there, not only by them, but by their children and grandchildren.

Temple Israel Welcomes Interim Religious School Principal

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.

Summer Speaker Series Week 7 – Rabbi Brown: “How a racist Jew, a Methodist thief and a Catholic aristocrat led me to Temple Israel”

The Shabbat service was held in the sanctuary last Friday in order to accommodate the expected crowd of Temple Israel members eager to see their new rabbi in action. During services last week, Rabbi Brown asked questions of the congregants, so that he might get to know them and the history of Temple Israel better. This week, it was Rabbi Brown’s turn to do the talking as he explained “How a racist Jew, a Methodist thief and a Catholic aristocrat led [him] to Temple Israel.”

The evening was rather low key and slightly informal, as Cantor Shermet and Rabbi Brown sat for most of the service on stools in front of the bima. There was a nice feeling of communion among the congregants. It seemed like everyone wanted Rabbi Brown to feel comfortable and welcome.

Adding to the cozy atmosphere was a quartet of musicians–Jon Bleicher, Julie Sandene, Tom Friedman and Anna Eirinberg–who accompanied Cantor Shermet during the prayers.

Rabbi Brown spoke not of his physical journey to Omaha, but his spiritual one. He mentioned three specific examples from his life that led him to become the man he is, the rabbi he is, and what he hopes to bring to Temple Israel from those experiences.

The first example he mentioned resonated with me, personally, because it was about the city of Boston, which is where I attended graduate school. When Rabbi Brown was in high school and living in Atlanta, he told his parents he wanted to visit Boston for a week, alone. And he did.

Rabbi Brown described riding on the T (Boston’s version of a subway system), surrounded by unfamiliar faces and languages, and how he automatically, almost instinctively and reflexively, pulled his bag closer to his body.

Everyone has probably had a similar moment. I know I have, in Los Angeles, in New York City. I rode that same train in Boston that Rabbi Brown mentioned, and had similar thoughts about the strangers around me. And it makes you think, when you experience a moment like that. It makes you question your preconceived notions of the world around you and your place in it.

I would urge everyone to watch the clip* below, of Rabbi Brown speaking of his journey to Omaha and those he met on the way. If you haven’t met him yet, I think this video is a good introduction to Rabbi Brown and to what he’ll be bringing to Temple Israel in the months and years to come.

*Please note that at the 7:15 mark, the audio goes dead for approximately 45 seconds, and at the 14:25 mark, the video freezes, but the audio works. We apologize for the technical difficulties.

Summer Speaker Series Week 6 – Q&A with Rabbi Brown

For the first time since his arrival in Omaha, Rabbi Josh Brown interacted with his new congregation in a more ceremonial capacity during last Friday’s Shabbat service.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” Rabbi Brown told me later. “I was anxious to get a sense of what it feels like to be on the bima here.”

But if he was nervous, as he suggests, it didn’t show as he took to the microphone like an old-school talk show host, walking back and forth in front of the congregants like Phil Donahue. Instead of having one speaker talk about his or her memories of the Cass Street Temple Israel, Rabbi Brown took the opportunity to stage an informal Q&A session as a way to get to know both the building and its members.

“It’s harder to connect when you don’t know people,” Rabbi Brown said. “I was happily surprised when I was able to look out from the bima here and already know four or five people.”

Rabbi Brown asked questions about Temple Israel, the Cass Street building and what it means to everyone. He told a story about how, when he was working at a camp outside San Francisco, he took a group of Israeli volunteers to visit a temple in the city so that they could begin to understand American Jewry. Rabbi Brown told them that in order to work with American Jews, you had to understand how they think, what they prioritize, and learning how they worship, how they use their synagogues, is vital to that understanding.

And that’s what Rabbi Brown wanted from the congregants on Friday night. He wanted them to tell him their thoughts about the building so that he might better understand them. And while the chapel wasn’t bulging with parishioners, those in attendance did in fact help educate Rabbi Brown about not only the building, but its congregants, who are the lifeblood of any house of worship, as well.

“Things still feel very new here, but I don’t feel like a stranger,” Rabbi Brown told me.

Check out the video of the Q&A session below. For those who haven’t met him yet, hopefully it will serve as a brief introduction to Temple Israel’s new rabbi. And for those who have met Rabbi Brown, now you’ll get to see him in action.

And don’t forget, this Friday the 13th, Rabbi Brown will be taking to the microphone once again to more formally introduce himself to the congregation and tell us about his “Journey to Omaha.”

Summer Speaker Series Week 5 – Ted Seldin and the Tornado

The devastating tornado that hit Omaha in early May 1975 was a little before my time, but as anyone who has lived in the Midwest for any length of time can attest, another one is always right around the corner.

On May 6 of that year, Ted Seldin was at home while his daughter Stephanie was at Temple Israel rehearsing for that year’s confirmation ceremony. As you can hear her describe in the video posted below, there had been storms and rumblings that entire week, so when the tornado sirens first went off no one gave them much thought.

Stephanie remembers Rabbi Brooks and Rabbi Weinstein telling the kids, “We have it on good authority that nothing bad will happen,” but ushering everyone downstairs just to be on the safe side.

Before too long, Stephanie remembers the two rabbis rushing downstairs and barking the usual safety precautions drilled into Midwesterners from Day One: Open the windows, huddle under the desks.

Stephanie remembers the moment the tornado arrived: “You hear about tornadoes sounding like a train? Trust me, they do.”

Soon, the train moves on and everyone picks themselves up and does a damage assessment. No major injuries. They head upstairs to see what had befallen Temple Israel.

The Omaha Community Playhouse (L) and Temple Israel, after the May 6, 1975 tornado.

Stephanie describes the front door being completely barricaded, and the stained glass windows in the sanctuary were all destroyed. The roof was gone from the building. Cars had been blown from one parking lot to another, next door and across the street. The devastation, while not complete, was still eye-opening.

But, as Stephanie remembers, “When I thought about it, they [the rabbis] were right. Nothing bad happened.” No one was seriously hurt, no one died, and as Ted describes later, when Rabbi Brooks went into the sanctuary to check on the Torahs, they were perfectly fine. Dry as a bone.

I personally have a difficult time believing in miracles, but when you see images of the destruction to Temple Israel and the surrounding area, the fact that no one was severely injured, the fact that the Torahs remained safe, despite there being no roof anymore, well, I wouldn’t argue with it being described as miraculous.

In the video below, Ted mentions a couple scrapbooks of photos and newspaper articles from the days after the tornado. I would urge anyone interested to take a look at them, to flip through the pages and truly get a sense of how bad the damage was, and to fully grasp how amazing it is that the Cass Street building is still standing.

Summer Speaker Series Week 4 – Mel Epstein Studies Religion

When Mel Epstein was getting ready to retire, his wife Lois asked him what he was going to do with his time. He said he wanted to learn about religion, and not only Judaism, but other religions as well.

“I’m so ignorant in religion in general and Judaism in particular, I think I’m going to study,” Mel said.

On June 22, Mel addressed the congregants who had gathered for the Friday night service and he explained why he wanted to study religion. Mel also shared a few nuggets of information he learned on his “struggle,” as he put it.

Mel began studying not only the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — but also some of the Native American beliefs as well. He was especially interested to discover that the main deity of the Lakota tribe was a woman who gifted to her people peace and understanding, something Mel suggested would not have gone over too well with the Abrahamic religions.

Mel also mentioned a story he read, an old German play written by a man named Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, titled “Nathan the Wise,” set during the Third Crusade.

“Nathan the Wise” is about a Jewish merchant, a sultan and a Templar who try to bridge the gaps between their three religions through friendship and tolerance.

At the time of its publication in 1779, the idea that the three religions could have anything in common was abhorrent to the Church, which forbid the play from being performed during Lessing’s lifetime. As such, the play wasn’t performed until 1783, in Berlin, two years after Lessing’s death.

“Nathan the Wise” sounds like a fascinating story, one which I now plan on reading, thanks to Mel’s talk. Any book that was banned by the Church is bound to provide some interesting insights.

Toward the end of his talk, Mel briefly pointed out some of the various misconceptions about the Bible he learned, many having to deal with the idea that the Bible reflects actual history rather than metaphor and parable.

For instance, Mel explained how the  Torah had been written 900 years after the life of Abraham, which, as Mel pointed out, is an awfully long time for an oral history to be told without a few embellishments making their way in. The same can be said of the story of Moses, which was first written down 300 years after the prophet lived, as well as the story of Jesus, which was first recorded somewhere between 40 and 70 years after he supposedly lived, and it was first written in Greek, a language Jesus would have had no contact with.

These misconceptions and interpretations of holy books, Mel explained, are the root cause of much of the anger and animosity between people, which is why he continues his studies, so that he doesn’t pass along those misconceptions to others:

I continue to study, I continue to struggle, I continue to try to learn. I try to learn, because if you look at Christian history, you can see why misconceptions are dangerous. They feed religious persecution, religious wars, they fuel racism, anti-female biases, anti-Semitism, and they have fought against science and the explosion of knowledge.