Shabbat shalom, everyone! I’m so excited to be here with you all in Omaha! This is not my first time at Temple Israel. I remember back when I was a sophomore in high school, I came out to Omaha for a NFTY event. I don’t remember a ton from that event, though, what did stick with me was the community that is here. Fifteen-year-old me was amazed by Rabbi Azriel’s discussion and presentation about Tri-Faith and the innovation by the teen leaders for the event impressed me as well. I knew then that Omaha was a special community. So naturally, when I met Ben Mazur at a NFTY event in January, we started to talk about youth group, camp and the Omaha Jewish Community. Months later, I was honored to be offered a job here doing the things that I love. See, I didn’t grow up at camp or being involved Jewishly beyond Sunday School. I didn’t even know Jewish summer camp existed until I was in high school when I attended Kutz Camp and worked there for two summers. But the impact that camp and youth group had on my life and the empowerment that it gave me as a teenager led me to where I am today.
This week’s Haftarah reading is from Isaiah. In it, G-d promises kindness and richness to the Jews. However, there is a line that stuck with me when I read through. G-d says that “And all your children shall be disciples of the LORD, And great shall be the happiness of your children;” When I see the Youth Learning Programs at Temple, I know that the happiness amongst our children is great. From our temple tots through our teens, we excel as a congregation. Oftentimes in the national Jewish community, there is discussion of what the future may look like, as it seems many of our youth are not connecting the way they once were. Jewish Professionals, lay leaders and other community members remark on how things aren’t what they once were. You hear things like “our numbers aren’t what they used to be” or “things don’t happen at Temple anymore like they used to.” While these are understandable points, I don’t think these are the criticisms we should have. Instead, we should ask what our teens want from our community. What are ways that our teens can connect with themselves and their Jewish identities? How can we prepare our teens to use all they’ve learned and the actions they’ve taken as they become Jewish adults in an ever-changing society?
That’s one of the many reasons that we’ve reimagined our Wednesday night education program. Our new program, Kesher, which is Hebrew for connection, emphasizes the importance of teen-driven experiences. Our teens will have the opportunity to create their own learning topics and delve into issues that matter most to them. I believe the learning we have at Temple should be relevant and serve our community for the rest of their lives. We’re excited to delve into topics like civic engagement, racial justice, tri-faith and learning more about the diaspora. We have to continue to empower our teens to do what is best for the community, even if it is sometimes looks different than the ways we’ve seen in the past.
In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma says “Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men.” There’s a lot that we can learn from our teens in our community. Through the many Zoom calls I’ve already had with some of our teens, I feel enlightened. There’s so much that they can teach us and have taught me; I always am learning something new. By having our Kesher program and other teen-led experiences, our teens become the wise ones like and get to learn from each other.
Obviously, this year we will face challenges that we haven’t seen before, but I know we will work through it and be strong. Our teen leaders and temple staff are working tirelessly to continue to innovate in these times. However, I want to hear feedback from you all, my communal partners. Feel free to reach out to me via email or phone call and let me know how I’m doing and what I can do to improve. I’ve been so blessed to be received by the community the way I have been thus far. To the temple staff, thank you for everything, I can’t wait to continue to work with you. To the teens, you all are awesome and make me happy to go and work every day. And to everyone, thank you again for such an amazing welcome. I’m excited that Omaha is now my home.
Debbie Friedman used to sing that “the old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions” so that we can “build for tomorrow.” I first encountered this on the glass windows at the Kutz Camp where I felt empowered six years ago. I hope that while I’m in this position, I can help guide along these visions and partner with our teen leaders and the entire Temple community to make them a reality. Shabbat shalom, everyone!