Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel will receive the Jody and Neal (Buzz) Malashock Award for Professional Excellence at the Jewish Federation of Omaha Annual Meeting and Awards night on Monday, June 6, at 7 p.m. in the Jewish Community Center Theater. Rabbi Azriel retires from Temple’s pulpit at the end of May, after serving the congregation as its senior spiritual leader for 28 years.
“Buzz and I congratulate Rabbi Azriel on this well-deserved honor,” Jody Malashock said. “During his career as Temple Israel’s Senior Rabbi, he engaged the congregation with his strong leadership that extended out to the entire Jewish and non-Jewish community. Under his watch, Temple Israel grew to 700 families, united in its dedication to Reform Judaism and to Jewish Omaha.” Buzz added, “Rabbi Azriel is a bridge-builder who not only teaches Tikkun Olam but lives it every day. We are so pleased to honor him with this year’s Jody and Neal Malashock Award for Professional Excellence.”
When discussing the honor, Rabbi Azriel said, “It’s wonderful to be recognized by the community. I’m totally thankful for this award. Oddly enough, every year since we arrived in Omaha, the Federation Annual Meeting has been scheduled on or near our wedding anniversary. On June 6, Elyce and I celebrate 40 years of marriage and where will we be? At the JCC with our Omaha Jewish community. Beautiful.”
A true Sabra — the tenacious, thorny Israeli cactus with a thick skin that conceals a softer interior — Tel Aviv-born Azriel has been the voice of Temple Israel for almost three decades, acting as the conscience of his congregation. For his advocacy of outreach and social justice, Rabbi Azriel received the Human Relations Award from the Omaha Education Association; the Otto Swanson Spirit of Service Award for his dedication to building tolerance; and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Living the Dream Award in recognition of his continuing work on building cooperation with projects such as the Mitzvah Garden, Black/Jewish Dialogue and Habitat for Humanity. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment for Temple Israel, as well as for this city, is his dedication to the founding and development of the globally unique Tri-Faith Initiative.
“I’m not a spectator,” Azriel said. “I get into the mud. I know my mistakes. There were times when I barged into peoples’ lives and got a big kick in the ass. They told me, ‘I don’t want you here now.’ But at least they knew I tried to approach them. They understood I’m available. Temple Israel offered me a bully pulpit, and I appreciate the opportunity my congregation gave me to use it. To speak my mind.”
When Rabbi Azriel arrived at 69th and Cass, he found a congregation that was, by all accounts, fractured. “I gave my first sermon on Rosh Hashanah. The topic was Welcome Home, and the message was inspired out of the brokenness, the sadness, of the crises that preceded my coming — the dismissal of the rabbi who replaced Rabbi Brooks Z”L. I spoke about healing, hope and the future of Temple Israel. Since those days, this congregation and its leadership learned how to separate and say goodbye to their clergy, to their professional staff, with dignity and compassion. Temple members are saying goodbye to me with such thoughtfulness, so much generosity. I’m very moved and grateful.”
The proper care and feeding of Jewish professionals is high on Azriel’s priority list, especially when those professionals depart the institutions that employed them. “There have been incidents — on the congregational level, at the Federation — where Jewish professionals and clergy have not been treated respectfully during times of transition. There are current and former members of this community who live with scars from a lack of derech eretz — the common consideration and basic decency that Torah teaches us to show others. Our community needs to spend more time thinking about the way we treat our ‘professional Jews’ — our clergy, our executive directors. And what is the responsibility of the leadership in this town to keep in touch with professionals who are no longer in their employ? Do they reach out to embrace them? We need to teach the young Turks who sit on boards how to behave. Respect and appreciation and empathy are Jewish values that must be integrated into the lives of the young men and women who will lead this community into the future. Jewish Omaha is very attractive. Very generous. But our HR Department needs reevaluating.”
Discussing retirement put Azriel in a reflective mood. “All our Temple presidents have been amazing. Each brought special talents to the running of the synagogue. I remember the late Jerry Milder was president of Temple when I arrived. I told him I hated the way the interior of Temple looked and Jerry replaced all the chairs so we didn’t look like the Playhouse. When the late Larry Roffman was president he gave me the gift of one sentence. ‘Aryeh,’ he told me. ‘This isn’t a revolution. It’s an evolution.’ Larry, like other presidents, tried to tame me. Some were more successful than others.”
Still relatively untamed, Rabbi Azriel’s passions keep burning. “I’m very impressed with the Life and Legacy program. So now that you’ve raised the money, what are you going do with it? What content will you offer. And of what quality? Bricks are important. I’d be the last one to disparage bricks. We spent plenty on building the new Temple Israel. But then we have to decide what will happen inside the bricks. What are we going to do with the money, the resources, the endowments. We’re in a period of post-denominational Judaism. Look at our kids. We have to engage them in unconventional ways. We need to meet them in coffee shops, bars, turn everything upside down. Send teens on trips to Israel? Beautiful. But we should also send our young people on missions to Jewish communities in South America, Russia, Cuba. Let them experience Jewish life in Europe. Be ambassadors. The vessels in which we offer Judaism to the next generation are broken. The days of just circling the wagons around our own congregations are done.”
Always the gadfly, Rabbi Azriel continues to challenge us. “The community must rally around the Friedel Jewish Academy. The survival of our Day School is essential to the recruitment and retention of Jewish professionals in Omaha. We need to add two more grades to Friedel. We must offer free Jewish summer camp to our kids, offer college tuition help. Bring scholars-in-residence who can transform us. We must listen to the needs of Jews in this town, and address those needs. This takes collaboration, dialogue, between Federation, the rabbis, the lay leadership. I came to Omaha to comfort those who were disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. I kept my word. Am I going to change in retirement? Not a chance.”
Ask Rabbi Aryeh Azriel what he’s going to miss in retirement and he nails you with, “What am I going to miss? Let me miss it first, and I’ll get back to you.” For him, retirement means “a relief, a time to take care of myself, take care of Elyce and the kids and the grandkids. A time to continue to study, learn and teach. To go to Israel and spend time with my parents. To get more involved in youth work. Not only with Jewish youth, but with Sudanese kids. With youth in this town who are at risk. I hope I can talk to my successor and tell him or her about this great city. To introduce the next Temple rabbi to Film Streams, the restaurants and food trucks, the symphony, opera, Keneko. I’ve been here long enough to see the evolution. I hope people realize how much thinking goes into creating such a sane community.”
“So now I’ll be coming to the pews of Temple Israel to pray as a congregant,” Rabbi Azriel continued. “This is my synagogue. Omaha and Temple have been amazing to me and Elyce, to Yaniv, to Leora and Matt and little Gabe and Mia. I hope the community will continue to embrace us the way they have in the past 28 years. On my last Friday night service I’d like to say a special Kaddish. Not for the end of my role here, but for all the people who allowed me to enter into their lives and are no longer with us. I can see their images. When I walk to the bimah on the last Friday, those people will be sitting in the pews. It will be hard for me. I didn’t realize how hard.”