by Mary Sue Grossman, Publicity Chairman
When Rabbi Ari Dembitzer introduced his brother, Shmuli, during an Omaha visit in January, he described Shmuli as the “good son.” With his brother looking on, nodding and smiling, Rabbi Dembitzer said that while Shmuli was focused and “on track”, he was the one often in trouble, the one who gave his parents many, many grey hairs and made them truly wonder where his life’s path would lead.
Fortunately for Beth Israel Synagogue, Rabbi Dembitzer’s journey has led him to Omaha on what is actually a well-worn path. Thirteen years ago, he was invited by then senior rabbi, Howard Kutner, to serve as the congregation’s High Holiday chazzan. Rabbi Dembitzer – though at that time without the rabbinic title – immediately became a beloved member of the Beth Israel family. He continued to return nearly every year, sharing his musical talents, love of Torah and incredible ruach with the congregation. Rabbi Dembitzer soon began referring to Omaha as “Home-aha,” considering Omaha his second home.
He returned to Omaha again this past September for the High Holidays. With the search still underway to fill the position left open by the departure of Rabbi Jonathan Gross in June, Beth Israel president, Josh Gurock, approached Rabbi Dembitzer about serving as the interim rabbi. With the encouragement of synagogue members and the full support of the Beth Israel board, he agreed to stay through December. The time frame was soon extended through Sukkot of 2015. Then finally, Rabbi Dembitzer approached the Rabbinic Search Committee, stating he wanted to apply for the position.
The decision to extend an offer was speedy and unanimous.
“Rabbi Dembitzer is a wonderful choice for Beth Israel Synagogue because he makes every single congregant feel special,” commented Joel Alperson, chair of the Rabbinic Search Committee. Other committee members were Beth Cohen, David Kohll, Gary Shyken and Rabbi Yaakov Weiss. “Whether it’s during services, kiddush, or even on the phone, everyone matters when they’re with Rabbi Dembitzer,” continued Joel. “Rabbi Dembitzer shows passion in almost everything he does. While he’s giving a sermon, praying, or simply welcoming someone into our synagogue, he exhibits an energy which is profoundly felt by everyone around him.”
When asked how Rabbi Dembitzer has touched him personally, Joel stated, “The best thing I can say about Rabbi Dembitzer is that he has not only become my rabbi but also my friend. He is someone with whom I can both laugh and confide in. He makes coming to Beth Israel a joy.”
Rabbi Dembitzer is from New York and has lived in Israel for the past several years in both Jerusalem and at Kfar Adumim in the Judean Desert. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Affairs. He received rabbinic ordination from Mesivta Tifret Jerusalem, the yeshiva of Rabbi David Feinstein, son of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Rabbi Dembitzer is also well known to a great many people in the U.S. and in Israel. Judge Daniel Butler, a recent Beth Israel Scholar-in-Residence commented he was surprised to see Rabbi Dembitzer in Omaha, telling the congregation “He is a big deal in the Jewish world!”
This familiarity is primarily through his association with Camp Simcha where he has worked since 1997. Camp Simcha is for children with cancer and different chronic illness, under the umbrella organization called Chai Lifeline. Camp Simcha provides a happy and magical environment for children so they can confront their challenges with increased strength and willpower. Rabbi Dembitzer recently returned from Israel after leading a trip for 14 teens with chronic illnesses. Among the many things the group did was meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Rabbi Dembitzer will continue his work with Camp Simcha, spending one month each summer with the campers plus periodic trips throughout the year.
Rabbi Dembitzer counts Rav Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, as providing the path he follows. Rav Kook is recognized as one of the most important Jewish thinkers of all time. “Rav Kook looked at things in a positive way and was an innovative thinker. He taught that the world is advancing toward a beautiful place and I strive to be a part of that journey” said Rabbi Dembitzer. “His teachings also helped me understand there is no contradiction in learning. It is rather a matter of learning more.”
He chuckles and admits that he never wanted to be a rabbi. “It seemed that it was not a good fit for me” adding that in a way he had to “get over himself.” “I have a strong passion for Torah Judaism,” said Rabbi Dembitzer. “Torah Judaism is who we are internally, for eternity, and I look forward to infusing the community with my passion. As a rabbi, I hope to be someone who can have influence and also be influenced.”
Another passion for Rabbi Dembitzer is music, which he describes as “connecting the heart and the mouth” adding that “music provides an emotional piece for everyone.” His favorite musician is Shlomo Carlebach which is in evidence during the Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat held each Rosh Chodesh at Beth Israel.
Josh Gurock, Beth Israel President, said “Having Rabbi Dembitzer join the Beth Israel team is such a natural. He is a perfect fit, well-liked and respected by the congregation with a great feel for the community.” In talking about his programming and interactions with kids, Josh described him as a Pied Piper. “Our kids just love ‘Reb Ari’. He infuses the kids with his energy and enthusiasm and love of learning.” Josh concluded saying “The welcome shown to Rabbi Ari by the Beth Israel congregation and the Omaha Jewish community over the years has already provided Rabbi Dembitzer with a true feeling of home. We are looking forward to a great future together.”
The mission of Beth Israel Synagogue is to perpetuate the legacy of Torah Judaism in the modern world and provide a home for those who wish to learn about and observe halacha, Jewish law. Beth Israel Synagogue welcomes all persons of the Jewish faith to join, and accepts the diversity of practice and thought among its members. Beth Israel offers a variety of religious, cultural and social programs throughout the year. For more information, please contact Beth Israel Synagogue’s office at 402.556.6288, or e-mail BethIsrael@OrthodoxOmaha.org.