Update from Mike Siegel

A couple weeks ago, I attended the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly (GA) in Chicago along with four professional JFO staff. The GA is a conference that brings together all Federations in North America to discuss and learn about the current issues facing Jewish communities locally and globally. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the GA was packed with great content and interesting speakers. I left the conference with many valuable takeaways for our community. Following are some highlights:

One of the sessions I attended analyzed Jewish data that has been gathered through national studies. It showed that many cities are good at welcoming new Jewish families to their communities but fall short of making these new families feel like they belong to the Jewish community. Our Federation is making positive strides with our welcoming process, but this session served as a reminder that the process needs to continue past the initial welcome. Some communities host Shabbat dinners welcoming new families and introducing them to a community contact. This helps with assimilation. Others host “Belonging” events where the community matches new families with existing families that have similar makeups. We, as the Jewish Federation of Omaha, need to make a concerted effort to welcome not just those that have previous ties to Omaha, but those who are brand new to this wonderful community.

“The New Jewish Family” was another session I attended. This session addressed interfaith marriages and how the Jewish future will be redefined. Interestingly, most interfaith couples say that while they have the desire to learn more about Judaism and what it means to live a Jewish life, they are more likely to wait to be approached rather than proactively seek this information out. Toronto has started a program called “Jewish And” which provides support and programming for interfaith couples, connecting them with one another to further the discussion of how religion is going to fit into their family dynamic. These couples find comfort in knowing others are having similar fact and faith-based experiences. The JFO plans to dig deeper into this topic to determine how best to help our interfaith couples on their religious journey.

Our group had the opportunity to meet with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a leading global Jewish humanitarian organization. This meeting allowed us to see our campaign dollars in action. JDC does amazing work aiding vulnerable Jews, rescuing Jews in danger, and responding to global crises. In addition, the JDC has programs that help cultivate Jewish life. Two key programs are “Senior Guidance Centers” and “Entwine.” Senior Guidance Centers help seniors prepare for retired life by supplying life coaches and workshops for their next phase of life. These centers are already established throughout Israel and might be a program that would benefit our Omaha seniors. Entwine is like a Jewish Peace Corps. It provides pathways for Jewish professionals and lay leaders to hone their skills and commitment to global, Jewish issues. Programs like these are potential opportunities for us to expand our own programming to appeal to a broader audience.

Finally, a general observation I walked away with is the need to send more lay leaders to attend the GA. It gives community members a greater understanding of JFNA. Endowments have been established to help defray the costs.

Attending the GA was a meaningful experience. The speakers, sessions and other participants sparked conversation and gave us ideas for how best to improve the JFO. Thank you to our generous donors who had the foresight to establish endowments to provide lay leaders with professional development opportunities such as these. I look forward to making new connections at a future GA and hope that a few more Omaha community members will consider joining me.

Shabbat Shalom,

Mike Siegel
JFO President

Update from Phil Malcom

In June of 2018, my wife and I packed up a rented RV and hit the road for a truly epic road trip. More than five thousand miles, eleven national forests, and five national parks all across the Western United States. Coming along with us on this trip were Laura’s mom, aunt, and uncle. Five people in a five-person RV for eleven days. What could go wrong?

We planned our routes and stops carefully; we planned our meals equitably to ensure everyone had the opportunity to go to the places they wanted to go; we even brought a giant poster with ground rules for conversation and a buzzer to keep everyone civil. No politics, no family drama, be nice. Only fun memories and the Beach Boys allowed.

Well, the ground rules lasted about two hours. My wife’s uncle Brian hid the buzzer for several days because he was tired of being buzzed. We all argued about speed limits. We argued about politics. Brian and I debated the merits of paper maps vs. Google Maps ad nauseum (hot take: Google Maps is much better). I got more frustrated than I’ve probably ever been trying to coordinate the parking of a 25-foot RV in a tiny parking lot in the Redwoods.

And we also had more fun than we’d ever had. We made memories on that trip that will last a lifetime. We met interesting people and saw truly breathtaking sights. We experienced new places, new foods, new friends. And sharing the journey with our loved ones was what made it so special. We regularly talk about how amazing that trip was. We joke about the arguments. It was messy; it was complicated; it was at times chaotic. It was family.

Your family is both an inherited and a created thing. You are born into (or married into) a family, and yet each day you make choices that actively build that family’s dynamic. I’m a fairly reserved person, and I prefer to sit back and observe; yet over the years I’ve learned it’s best to lean into the most complicated parts of our relationships. That’s how you build a family.

Building a community is no different. It’s filled with rapturous moments of shared vision and mired with conflicts and disagreements. Sometimes we feel that we can conquer any challenge together, and sometimes we wonder if we can agree on what color the sky is. We succeed, and sometimes we make mistakes. Yet all of this is how you create relationships. A community that doesn’t experience all of this isn’t a community. There’s a phrase I sometimes use with our staff: lean into your hardest customer. Sometimes you find that that hardest customer can become your most engaged partner down the road. If we all do this enough, we find that the community we sought to preserve grows even further beyond what was laid before.

We are blessed to have a rich and varied history in Omaha. (In fact, I would encourage you to hear more about that history at the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society’s 40th Anniversary event on Sunday.) None of us built that; we inherited it. But despite this rich history, every day we make the choice anew whether we will build a community or tear it down, whether we will tend to this garden or let it become overgrown.

We have many opportunities for you to engage your community on this campus. I often say that what makes the Jewish Federation of Omaha unique in the city is that we offer services and programs for every stage of life all in one building. If you haven’t been on campus in a while, come on out. Try a new program. Join a committee. Complain about the speed bumps. (Okay, maybe don’t do that one.) However you engage, whether at the JCC or the JCRC, whether on a committee or a basketball team, whether in an RV or a sukkah, I hope you join us as we build and sustain this Omaha Jewish community, now and into the future.

Shabbat Shalom,
Phillip Malcom
JFO Interim CEO

Update from Phil Malcom

We’ve all grown accustomed to negativity in our daily news feed. Violence, divisiveness, rising antisemitism—the list goes on, and we’ve discussed many of these items in our updates over the last several months. Most recently, hatred struck close to home with antisemitic fliers spread throughout the Leawood West neighborhood. This was addressed by our own Jewish Community Relations Council in a community update last week. Moments like these make us question the longevity of civil society, doubt our place in the world, and can drive us inward as a community. It is tempting to use these moments as reasons to despair or to close ranks or to live in fear.

But the Omaha Jewish community is different. Every day we make the conscious choice to practice tikkun olam—to go down the path of tolerance, peace, and love for our neighbor. The signs all around our campus announce that “Everyone is Welcome,” and even in moments of fear and anxiety, we double down on this philosophy and choose joy over anger. Of course, we are increasing our security and ensuring we are keeping each other safe, but we do this without losing our spirit along the way.

In 2013 the band Alternate Routes wrote a song for Newtown Kindness, a nonprofit formed in the wake of the Newtown school shooting. Newtown Kindness (recently renamed the Charlotte Helen Bacon Foundation) works to carry on the legacy of kindness inspired by Charlotte Helen Bacon, a six-year-old who lost her life in the shooting. This song, called “Nothing More,” captures the spirit of responding to hatred with goodness:

We are love, we are one
We are how we treat each other when the day is done
We are peace, we are war
We are how we treat each other and nothing more

Today is my 36th birthday. I woke up sore and tired and greeted by the usual collection of distressing news stories. Then I took my daughters to the Jewish Community Center’s Early Learning Center and saw the truly unbridled joy that comes from children in an environment where they are loved, supported, and celebrated. Next week I look forward to visiting my grandmother at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home. Her dementia has progressed substantially, but she absolutely lights up when she hears the musical guests brought in by the Activities team. When I open up the Jewish Press or observe the good work being done by any of our other agencies and partners I see the ways in which we practice tikkun olam in both big ways and small ways each day. While each passing year teaches me that the world is increasingly complex and challenging, it also presents fresh reminders that people have tremendous capacity for goodness.

We practice tikkun olam when we treat each other with kindness. We practice tikkun olam when we welcome the stranger. We practice tikkun olam when we respond to fear with love. And we practice tikkun olam when we make the conscious choice each day to see the good in the world around us, despite its multiple failings. This is the work of the Jewish Federation of Omaha. It is challenging work, and we are not perfect in it. But it is good work, and I am thankful to have all of you with us as we accomplish it together.

Shabbat Shalom,
Phil Malcom,
JFO Interim CEO