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6.10.16 Issue

Mike Kelly, Columnist, Omaha World-Herald

Ed. note: At Rabbi Aryeh Azriels’s farewell dinner, Saturday, May 28, Omaha World Herald writer Mike Kelly delivered a fantastic speech. He has graciously allowed The Jewish Press to reprint it here.

Bob Freeman said Rabbi Azriel makes Jews feel more Jewish. I’m Catholic, and he makes me feel more Jewish!

Thank you. I’m so honored to be here as we bless the Azriels, Aryeh and Elyce and their family.

I’m just your local newspaper guy – a lifelong Catholic, happy to call this dear man my friend.

One time, Rabbi asked me to emcee an event at Temple Israel, and six of us took part in a planning meeting. I noted that I was the only non-Jew there and said I really appreciated being included. Aryeh put his hand on my shoulder, smiled and said: “Michael, you’ve always been Jewish!”

I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant but I decided to take it as a compliment.

I’m pleased to share a few thoughts, professionally and personally, about this rabbi who connects our entire greater Omaha community.

I’ve known him for some years now, and we’re about the same age. I just can’t understand why he’s taking early retirement!

back left: Hazzan Erik Contzius, left, Cantor Jennifer Blum Seeger, Cantor Karen Webber Gilat and Cantor Wendy Shermet; front row: Rabbi Debbie Stiel, left, Rabbi Craig Marantz, Rabbi Eric Linder and Rabbi Josh Brown.

back left: Hazzan Erik Contzius, left, Cantor Jennifer Blum Seeger, Cantor Karen Webber Gilat and Cantor Wendy Shermet; front row: Rabbi Debbie Stiel, left, Rabbi Craig Marantz, Rabbi Eric Linder and Rabbi Josh Brown.

Many times he has inspired my writing in The World-Herald. In recent times when we’ve run into each other, we both reach for our cell phones and show off photos of our grandchildren. When it comes to the little ones, the rabbi and I are as goofy as any other grandpas.

My wife Barb and I have loved getting to know our beloved son-in-law Eric’s Jewish family in New York. Two and a half years ago at one of our visits to their home on Long Island, it happened to be the first day of Hannukah. We had a lovely meal, and then Eric’s mother, a wonderful harpist, played for us — Christmas carols.

I said, “Karen, I loved your Away in the Manger, but do you know Adam Sandler’s Hannukah Song? (laughter _) …. She went right into it:“Put on your yarmulke, here comes Hannukah.”

Professionally, some of my dealings with Rabbi Azriel have related to this amazing plan for a Tri-Faith campus. In no place else in the world has a community intentionally planned to build a synagogue, a mosque and a church, as well as a fourth interfaith building, on one plot of land. It’s not the Holy Land, but when it is completed, it will surely be holy land.

Seven years ago, 1,100 people gathered across the street from here for a stirring event: “Dinner at Abraham’s Tent: Conversations in Peace.” At the end, a benediction was sung by a cantor, an Episcopal priest and an imam — respectively in Hebrew, English and Arabic. The evening ended with the words, “salaam, peace and shalom.”

In 2013,  as you know, the beautiful Temple Israel synagogue opened near 132nd and Pacific. Construction will start soon on the American Muslim Institute’s mosque. And Countryside Community Church has voted to build there as well. Many people have led on this project, including Dr. Syed Mohiuddin and Pastor Eric Elnes. I don’t know that anyone has pushed harder or longer than Rabbi Aryeh Azriel.

He is full of fire, occasionally willing to thump his hand on a table for emphasis. I once heard him say, “I am one of those Israelis with no patience. I want this to happen now.”

It’s happening, Rabbi.

Like many or all of you, I also have had a personal connection with this unique Omahan, Rabbi Azriel. As I tell my story, I know that most of you, too, have had direct contacts with Rabbi in times of illness, injury or tragedy,  as well as in times of great family celebration.

In 2002, my then 24-year-old daughter, who was a teacher in Texas, was abducted by a stranger and violently attacked. I flew to Texas that day, a Friday, and an article appeared the next morning in The World-Herald, reporting that Omaha native Bridget Kelly had been shot multiple times and was in critical condition. Later on that Saturday, finally feeling I could breathe, I checked my phone messages.

The first one had been left at 5:53 a.m. I didn’t recognize the number, but when I heard the first word of the voice message I knew who it was from. The first word was… Shalom.

Shalom is a word that Rabbi Azriel has spoken probably a million times, but I can’t tell you how comforting and compassionate that one “Shalom” was to me. At the worst time in our family’s life, he had immediately reached out to me, someone who is not a member of his congregation.

The message that followed “Shalom” was prayerful. I grabbed a sheet of paper and wrote it down, for some reason thinking I should save it in that way.

A week and a half ago I said to my wife, “Honey, don’t we have a box with Bridget’s memorabilia?” Turned out it was actually three boxes, and I began searching through them. I looked and I looked and said to Barb, “I seem to remember it was on a yellow sheet.”

The Azriel Family: Rabbi Aryeh, left, Elise and Yaniv Azriel

The Azriel Family: Rabbi Aryeh, left, Elise and Yaniv Azriel

I found it. This is the actual yellow sheet, and this is what I wrote down on June 22, 2002:

5:53…. Rabbi Azriel. … “Shalom. I want to share our prayer for healing. Our thoughts, our emotions at this time are with your family. We are praying in our congregation for Bridget, your daughter. May she discover strength and come fast to speedy healing. Please don’t hesitate to call if there’s anything we can do.”

I didn’t hesitate. I called him. Rabbi hadn’t met Bridget at that point but he told me he sensed she was a woman of faith, and she was — and is.

In fact, she later said that what happened to her was so far beyond anything she could handle, she simply gave it to God. And when her attacker left, thinking she was dead, she got up – and felt as though she had been lifted up by God.

I, the dad, rather bitterly said, “Oh, yeah? Well, where was God 10 minutes earlier?” She replied, “He was there holding my hand.”

That’s the greatest testament of faith I’ve ever heard.

The Irish like me sometimes get angry with God. Jews don’t do that, do they, Rabbi?

When we need it, Rabbi Azriel, too, will hold our hands. He also will push us — push us hard to move forward. What he won’t do is push us away. On the contrary, Aryeh brings people together. And he has had a huge impact on Omaha.

Thank you, Aryeh, and thanks to all of you. I bid you salaam, peace — and especially to you, my rabbi, shalom.