by Rabbi Yaakov Jeffrey Weiss, Beth Israel
Just over eight years ago, I came out on a visit to Omaha and was immediately impressed by the community. Among the many things that struck me was that while the Jewish community was small in numbers, the infrastructure was strong. I saw Beth Israel’s new building with a simple and open design that seemed to encourage a sense of welcomeness. I enjoyed tasting the local kosher cuisine (AKA the Bagel Bin) to find out that Omaha certainly does know how to make a real bagel. (At the time, the Star Deli didn’t exist yet, but now we know that Omaha can also make a deli sandwich and other delicacies that put larger cities to shame.) I saw the JCC campus and thought it was wonderful that people of so many ages and stages could be engaged at the same place at the same time. The Blumkin Home renovations had begun to unfold, and I noticed the care that was given to ensure that residents were made to feel at home and given the utmost respect. I had the privilege of meeting and learning from Rabbi Kripke who was holding court in his room, receiving visitors just before I took not-too-long a stroll down to the CDC where I saw the littlest ones in our community learning basic things for the first time. As I went on my tour, I found that in between where the youngest and oldest members of the community spent their time was the Jewish Day School, Friedel Jewish Academy. As I entered the school, I saw handmade drawings and personalized Hebrew and English signs lining the halls. I visited the Riekes Synagogue that opened up into the JCC, blending the history with its future. Even though it was summertime and the students weren’t present, I could tell that this was a vibrant school and an impressive place for children to learn.
Since moving here, throughout my five years at the Blumkin Home and now at Beth Israel, I have had the opportunity to participate in many programs at Friedel. I’ve been there for many joyous celebrations like sharing a story about Yom HaAtzmaut, blowing the shofar before Rosh HaShana, or dancing with the kids for Simchat Torah; and I’ve been there for somber remembrances like Yom Hazikaron and Yom HaShoah. No matter if it is for happy or sad occasions, it is amazing to see children at such a young age so engaged in things that are bigger than themselves. The way in which students feel part of not just a school but a community will no doubt have a lasting effect as to how they will interact with the Jewish Community into adulthood. It is easy to see how the students at Friedel already identify as part of the larger community by the way in which they embrace their visitors. When my daughter Naama, was about two years old, I brought her along with me to Friedel for one of the holidays. She immediately felt a sense of belonging and from then on referred to Friedel as “my school.” Naama (and my younger daughters, Meira and Adira) have since come along with me many times as visitors at Friedel; but for years, we’ve been looking forward to Naama being old enough to finally walk into the building and it truly being “her school.”
Just a couple weeks ago, I finally had the opportunity to drop off my little girl for her first day of kindergarten at Friedel. We took a picture of her with a broad smile in front of the school. Right behind her in the picture is the school’s little waterfall that babbles over some rocks. As Naama started her journey into formal education, the water flowing over the rocks reminded me of the story of one of our greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva. Before Rabbi Akiva was a rabbi, he was an uneducated shepherd. One day, while sitting by a brook he noticed how a small and steady drip of water had managed to carve a hole into a dense rock. The sight made an impression on Akiva as he thought that if something as gentle as water can penetrate a solid rock, perhaps learning Torah could penetrate his heart. From that point on, he dedicated himself to learning — starting with the simple Aleph Bet. Akiva didn’t seek out a private tutor, however, to get him up to speed in the knowledge he was lacking. He went to school with the youngest children who were just starting to learn how to read. To Rabbi Akiva, there was no generation gap in learning, and that is how he was able to become the great scholar that he was. So, too, inside the walls of Friedel you the see the youngest students with the oldest. Being on the JCC campus, those 5 – 12 year-old students spend their time both learning from and teaching the smaller ones at the CDC and their elders at the Blumkin Home. I am proud that Naama can now call Friedel “my school,” but truly it has always been “our school” for us and the entire Jewish community of Omaha.