Annette van de Kamp-Wright
Editor, Jewish Press
When Beth Israel’s rabbi Ari Dembitzer first moved to Omaha, he watched a congregant park—far away from the front door, even though there were closer spots. When he asked why, the congregant told him: “Other people might need those closer spots.”
It illustrates how caring this community is, he said: “Jewish people are a united people. When we are able, we should speak as one and Omaha is very good at that. This is one of the most close-knit communities I have ever seen. We have different viewpoints, but we have so much love.”
Case in point: the planned Community Beit Midrash, which will kick off Oct. 23 and involves Beth El’s Rabbi Abraham, Temple Israel’s Rabbi Stoller, Beth Israel’s Rabbi Dembitzer and Chabad’s Rabbi Katzman as teachers.
“The idea for community-wide adult learning, involving all four rabbis and partnering with the Jewish Federation of Omaha, originated about five or six months ago,” Rabbi Stoller said. “Rabbi Abraham and I had lunch together, which we do once a month; and we began talking about collaborating on a project. We haven’t stopped talking about it since.”
“Oftentimes, when we as congregations collaborate, it’s a one-time thing,” Rabbi Abraham said. “But we began discussing something more solid, more permanent. The idea for the adult Beit Midrash was born.”
Jennie Gates-Beckman said:
“I was ecstatic to hear that the senior rabbis of our three congregations were committed to learning and teaching together in the format of a Beit Midrash (literally, House of Study) and wanted the JFO involved as well. Alan Potash and I agreed: if we were going to put the Federation’s name on this program, and call it a community-wide effort, we wanted to include everyone. We reached out and got Rabbi Katzman onboard for the panels. You might be wondering… what about the other clergy? Well… we have to keep something back for the community to want more – I’d love for this to develop into an annual collaboration!”
The class will meet weekly between October and May of this school year on Wednesday evenings from 7:30-8:30 p.m. The location of these weekly sessions will rotate between Beth El and Temple Israel, with one session at Beth Israel during the month of January.
“Over the course of the year,” Rabbi Stoller said, “we will also have four panel sessions at the JCC in which all four of us will participate. The first panel will mark the official start of the Beit Midrash and will take place Oct. 23. These panel sessions are held in the Jewish Federation Library, which is the perfect venue for all of us to come together!”
The Beit Midrash will culminate with a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which Beth El and Temple Israel will host together. “It offers an exciting weekly opportunity for community members to learn together with four different Jewish institutions,” Rabbi Stoller said. “In addition to providing this as a fantastic new approach for community members, we as rabbis get something out of it, too: the chance to teach together. We have great passion in common; we all are teachers at heart and preparing for something like this is exciting.”
“It means the four of us get to create together,” Rabbi Abraham said. “Spending time together, developing ideas and then sharing those ideas with the community, it means we will all get to know each other better. The growth that will come from this will be immeasurable!”
They all agree that coming together will expand the learning experience of everyone. With a variety of topics to study, Rabbi Abraham said, “Some sessions will draw people to a specific topic, others will decide they’ll come every week. The only way we can really expand the reach of adult learning is by collaborating; we really believe this will bring more people to the table.”
An initiative like this fits the Omaha community, Rabbi Stoller said.
“I’ve found the Jewish landscape of Omaha very compelling. Jewish identity takes shape in the synagogue, but Omaha goes beyond that. People really look beyond their ‘own synagogue.’ Our Community Beit Midrash answers that atmosphere of togetherness. I really don’t think you could create something like this anywhere else.”
The Beit Midrash is accessible to all community members.
“We’ll make everyone think,” Rabbi Abraham said, “no matter where you are at in your personal journey. It will be thought-provoking, engaging and at a high level. We’ll touch on many different aspects of Jewish life and in the process, break some barriers and become more comfortable in spiritually foreign spaces. In short, we’ll get to know each other better and that will make our community even stronger.”