Voices of Beth El
Esther Katz, Beth El congregant and Director of Dance and Cultural Arts at the Jewish Community Center, moved to Omaha in 2003 from Philadelphia after a very atypical Jewish upbringing.
Her story is unusual and unique. She shares it, in part, because stories connect us to each other and when we share our life stories with others our audience feels they get to know us as authentic people. This is the broad concept behind “Voices from Beth El”, a storytelling series from Beth El Synagogue where Esther is a happy participant.
Esther was raised in an interfaith family where, as she explains, “my mom was the first interfaith family in her Synagogue and my dad was the first interfaith family in his church.” Her religious education began 35 years ago when her mother’s Rabbi, her father’s Priest and the Board presidents met to decide how she would be raised. “Out of that meeting came the decision I would be raised Jewish but understanding the Christian faith,” Esther said.
She went to Hebrew school and Church, and celebrated all the Jewish holidays religiously. Out of respect for her father, she celebrated the Christian holidays as well. She recalls the amusing memory: “Every year, when Easter would fall during Passover, we would go to church with my dad and participate in the Easter egg hunt. I wasn’t allowed to eat any of the chocolates, because they weren’t kosher!”
Esther also recalled regular holiday visits to her father’s family, devout Episcopalians, in South Texas. Her mom would hand out gelt and dreidels. “She brought our menorahs all the way from Philly,” Esther said.
Interestingly, she said, it was her Dad that helped with her Torah portion. “He is a real renaissance man, he loved learning Hebrew.”
Yet, she met her future husband Philip Katz in a more conventionally Jewish way – in Israel while Philip was on a Birthright Trip and she was participating in an advocacy program through Hillel. When Philip started law school at Creighton University, Esther soon followed him to Omaha, student teaching at Dundee, and teaching Special Education at Mount View Elementary School.
She became a Sunday school teacher at Beth El and found her “second” family. “We were so warmly welcomed into the Beth El family. We had Shabbat dinner invitations every weekend and we have to thank the Parsows, the Greenbergs, the Shapiros and the Rafuls for making us feel so connected.”
Esther and Philip are raising three children in Omaha at Beth El. Jonah is eight, Talia is five and Elianna is almost two. “We have many favorite times at Bet El,” Esther said, “but we especially love the Simchat Torah celebrations. Rolling out the Torah in its entirety, around the room, is a great experience. It’s a challenge to enjoy it with three kids underfoot, but I know they are always welcome at Beth El.”
Omaha is definitely a permanent home for the Katz family. “Life is easier here than on the east coast,” she explains, “You can see the skyline as well as the sunrise and the sunsets. That’s pretty awesome.”
Beth El wants to tell their story, share their message and support the community conversation for synagogue life and involvement. Congregants have been sharing their stories since last October and will continue into 2016.