I usually try to offer messages of hope and optimism in my sermons. But my sermon tonight is different.
It’s a warning. A sounding of the alarm. A call to repentance.
No, it’s not about the election. Not directly, anyway.
It’s about what, to my mind, is the single greatest threat we face today in America –
the deep and extreme division in our society;
the genuine hatred we have for our fellow human beings who see the world differently or support a different candidate;
our complete inability as a society to disagree respectfully and still love each other;
our toxic impulse to condemn and disown wide swaths of our population not just as wrong, but as evil – in most cases, without ever looking them in the eye, or knowing their hearts, or even their names.
As we approach the High Holidays, we have to call these what they are: grave transgressions. And dangerous ones.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
It’s an old sentiment, going all the way back to the talmudic sages. They taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because the various factions in the Jewish community hated each other so intensely that their hatred corrupted the society and led to its collapse.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As in Judea nearly 2,000 years ago, hatred is a toxic force corrupting our society, weakening it, and threatening its existence.
* * *
The Talmud says that at the root of all corruption is idolatry (Sanhedrin 57a).
Idolatry is the worship of a false god. But what does that mean?
To worship something as a god is to give it ultimate power over your life.
When we surrender our will and our well-being to something else, we make that something else into a god.
When we give something or someone control over our decisions, our behavior, our relationships; when we let it dominate our worldview and our daily lives – we make that someone or something into a god. We commit idolatry.
And here’s my estimation of the state of our society today: we are deeply enmeshed in a dangerous and all-consuming idolatry.
I don’t mean what I’m about to say as a political statement. Idolatry is a spiritual error, not a political one.
Some of you are going to love this, some of you are going to hate it. But I believe this to be true, and I’m just going to say it: the object of our idolatry in America today is Donald Trump.
And it’s not just those who love him who are guilty; it’s those who hate him, too.
See, contrary to what you might think, idolatry is not always about love and adoration; it’s about giving something or someone dominance over your life.
That dominance can manifest itself in love and adoration, but it doesn’t have to. A person can worship drugs or money by letting them control his life, while at the same time despising them for the havoc and ruin they bring upon him.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) brings a weird and grotesque story to illustrate how hatred, too, can be a form of idolatry.
I’ll spare you the details, but here’s the bottom line: There was an idol in the ancient world called Ba’al Pe’or, and – I kid you not – the way you worshipped it was, let’s just say euphemistically, by “relieving yourself” on it.
(Seriously. You can look it up.)
But here’s the point: contempt, no less than love, can be raised to the level of worship. It’s the deification of disgust.
When we let our contempt and loathing for someone or something gain such power over us that it becomes a dominating, controlling force in our lives, we actually turn that object of contempt and loathing into an object of idol worship.
This society has transformed Donald Trump into an idol.
Some of us worship him with love and adoration; some of us worship him with hate and disgust. But worship him we do.
We worship him by surrendering our will, our minds, and our well-being to him.
Think about it. There is very little mental, emotional, or spiritual space in our lives anymore that Trump doesn’t dominate.
He’s just a man, after all – but we have given him far too much power over far too much of who we are and how we live day-to-day.
When I ask people, “How are you are doing?” these days, I can’t tell you how many of them answer with something about how Trump has got them down, or angry, or terrified, or outraged, or what not.
I’m sure we all know people who have ended friendships, or cut off family members, all because of what they think about Trump.
Maybe that’s happened to you – or worse, maybe you’ve done it to someone else.
Trump dominates our conversation and our consciousness, all the time.
As the commentator Matt Taibbi wrote in his column today: We “imbu[e] Trump’s every move with earth-shattering importance.”
We listen to people “say his name on TV thousands of times a day…and then [we] keep talking about him…at office parties, family dinners, kids’ sports events, everywhere, which sooner or later gets people wondering: who’s more annoying, the blowhard, or the people who can’t stop talking about the blowhard?”
On a larger scale, as Taibbi grimly points out, “Institutional America is now organized around a Trump-led America. The news media will lose billions with him gone… A surging activist movement will be deflated without him, along with a host of related fundraising groups and businesses…”
“It feels like a co-dependent relationship… People claim to hate him, but they never turn off the show…”
If we take honest stock of our lives, we see just how much control we have surrendered to this futile and destructive idolatry:
We let Trump determine who we’re going to be friends with…
We let him determine which family members we can talk to and which ones we can’t…
We give him say over key decisions we make in our jobs, over the TV we watch, the news we read, the way we process information.
Loving or hating Donald Trump has become our national religion.
And we spend countless hours imbibing dogma from Fox News, where he’s the savior of mankind, or CNN, where he’s the devil incarnate.
We are obsessed with him; consumed by him.
We even let him determine our mood, our ability to be optimistic, and our capacity to enjoy life!
And no one is to blame for that except us. We’ve done it to ourselves.
See, the thing about idols is, they’re false gods. As Abraham demonstrated to his father in that famous midrash, idols don’t really have the power we attribute to them. They’re the creation of human hands.
Neither Donald Trump nor any human being has the power to make himself an object of our adoring or our contemptuous worship. Only we can do that.
And we have.
The outcome is that we’ve created a society corrupted and weakened by broken relationships, baseless hatred, and a seemingly unbridgeable chasm dividing us.
* * *
So how do we save it? How do we heal?
The answer, I’m sorry to say, is not to be found in politics.
Elections are important, of course, and everyone should vote. Whichever candidate you support, vote.
But it is an error to view politics and elections as redemptive.
As the psalm says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, for they have no power to save.” (Psalm 146:3)
No, the real issues that need to be addressed are spiritual, and the work we have to do is deeply reflective.
There must be reasons why we have fallen into this idol worship.
What are they? What does it say about who we are, and how we need to change?
Maybe we can start with something Moses says in our Torah portion this week:
“Be silent, and listen, Israel!” he says. “Today you have become the people of Adonai your God.” (Deut. 27:9)
Maybe the first step toward ending the hatred and healing our broken society and our broken relationships is to just be quiet for once, and listen to each other; listen to the truths about ourselves that we’d rather ignore; listen to God.
* * *
One thing is for sure, though: just as Jonah warned the people of Nineveh, we will not save our society or our ourselves unless and until we repent of this idolatry and the grievous sins we have committed against each other in its name.
Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha…
For the sin we have committed against You, God…
By judging others unfairly.
By mistreating a friend or neighbor.
By losing self-control.
By giving in to our hostile impulses.
By violence and abuse.
By lies and deceit.
By cynicism and scorn.
By offensive speech.
By baseless hatred.
V’al kulam elo’ah s’lichot; s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.
For all these failures of judgment and will, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
The Temple Israel Book Club is excited to announce our guest speaker for September: Brian Bogdanoff, retired Omaha homicide detective and author of “Three Bodies Burning: The Anatomy of an Investigation into Murder, Money, and Mexican Marijuana.”
Born and raised in Omaha, Brian grew up at Beth Israel, attended Central High School like his parents and grandfather, and headed to UNO to figure out what he wanted to do in life. After taking a class called “Deviant Behaviors in Criminal Justice,” he decided to take more criminal justice classes, and in the mid-80’s Brian got an internship with the police department. It was during this time that a child tragically went missing and a task force was created. Brian’s duty was to answer hot line phone calls for tips, right alongside FBI agents. Brian knew he wanted to become a cop.
Brian began his career walking a foot patrol for roughly three years. He was recruited to narcotics and worked undercover for 12 years, then he made his move to homicide where he worked to solve drug-related murders.
Since the 90’s, Brian has also been teaching high schoolers about laws like search and seizure and probable cause. It was during one of these later demonstrations that Brian gave a presentation on one of his biggest cases
“One of the student said it was the best case he ever heard and that I should write a book about it,” said Brian.
When you read the book’s description, it’s easy to see why this case is so fascinating:
“A haunting triple murder… the inside story of the investigation. When two worlds collide—the illegal transportation of tons of Mexican cartel marijuana to inner city gang members in a Midwestern city’s “hood”—three bodies end up burning, caught in a web of greed as a major international drug deal goes very bad.
The chilling trail of evidence from a remote wooded area where three bodies are set on fire leads homicide detectives across the country chasing down witnesses and conspirators in a two-year search for cold-blooded killers. This case has it all: murder, piles of cash stashed in the most unlikely of places, a blood-soaked crime scene, the remote dump site for bodies, luxury cars, flashy jewelry, and hundreds of pounds of illegal dope. An unbelievable break takes detectives down the rabbit hole where CSI meets Law & Order and where good old gumshoeing and meticulous forensic procedures bring down a mega-million-dollar drug conspiracy and lock up the bad guys for life.
Follow the case through the eyes of the gritty homicide/narcotics detective. A handbook for the amateur criminologist, this book is for true crime fans, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and cops and robbers. Warning: This book contains graphic crime scene photos and adult language.”
Brian published the book in 2010 and tells the exact story of the case how it happened. The only thing he changed were some of the names of the characters.
“The way you solve one of these crimes is you need people to cooperate,” said Brian. “You have to find out who’s involved in your conspiracy and then you have to attack that circle and you get lower-end people to cooperate. I’m successful in that and I get people to cooperate and testify in open court.”
And what’s even more interesting? Brian has even brought a couple of the folks who testified in the case to his high school and book club talks to help tell the story!
“Three Bodies Burning” is full of stories, crime scene photos and even humor.
The Temple Israel Book Club will meet at the home of Susie and Jim Silverman on Sunday, September 13, at 10:30 a.m. We will gather on their deck for a socially-distanced morning. You can also join us via Zoom at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85999681585. For more information, please contact Justin Cooper, Justin_Cooper@mudnebr.com, or Susie Silverman, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
Our Sages taught that there are three crowns a man might wear in his life: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But the most important one of all is the crown of a good name.
Dr. Hugh Levin earned the crown of a good name.
And, though he was a humble man, he was rightfully proud of the things he achieved in his life and the reputation he built for himself.
After serving in the Air Force, Hugh moved to Omaha to join a practice with some of his former Ohio State classmates.
By 1968, he was so widely regarded that he was invited to start the cardiology department at Bergan Mercy hospital.
As department head, he was instrumental in securing the certification for the hospital to perform open heart surgeries.
Hugh was a brilliant doctor, and it seems he was well loved by the people he touched, too.
Mike, you remember your parents hosted lots of parties at your house when he was at Bergan. They loved to entertain.
In addition to running the cardiology department, Hugh also taught classes at Creighton Medical School. In that role, too, he earned a stellar reputation, winning numerous accolades for his teaching, including the Golden Apple Award.
Being a doctor was such a central part of Hugh’s identity. In fact, Anita, you called him “Doc.”
You told me about a conversation you had with him recently. You asked him:
“When you pass on and meet God, do you think you’ll let Him call you by your first name?”
And Hugh responded, “I think I’ll make Him call me Dr. Levin.”
He had a wonderful sense of humor.
Mike, you said he used to begin every med school lecture or speech he gave with a joke.
He actually kept a catalogue of jokes in a spreadsheet, so whenever he needed one, he would go to the spreadsheet and find just the right one.
I think he must have loved laughing.
Mike and Deb, you remember those summer vacations and family car trips to Okobojie, and New York, and other places – how your dad almost drove off the road because he was laughing so hard at the silly songs you were making up in the back seat, and the time when that guy who bragged to your dad about being an outstanding fisherman got his line caught in his pants.
Fishing was one of Hugh’s favorite pastimes. He and his parents used to go fishing together when he was growing up in Vermont.
Anita, he loved to tell you the story about how, when he was six years old, his dad gave him his first fishing pole.
His dad told him to go out and practice his casting, so Hugh threw his line way out into the water, and caught a fish so big he didn’t know what to do with it!
Hugh’s dad had a boat, and boy, did he love going out on the water.
Mike, you said they used to take the boat out through upper New England into Canadian waters, and your dad loved to wave back at the border.
Apparently, Hugh’s dad didn’t catch many fish, but his mother would be the one reeling them in.
Deb, you said in recent years he loved going to visit Mike and Jane out at Lake Bennington and going out on the boat, because it reminded him of his childhood.
Mike, you remember he also loved to sit out on the porch and just peacefully watch you mow the lawn, with his dog Buddy by his side.
Hugh loved Buddy. Deb, you said his voice would audibly change whenever he talked about Buddy.
And Buddy always reminded him of his dog Pal, whom he had growing up.
It seems like a piece of Hugh’s heart was always in Vermont.
Anita, you used to read him the news and weather reports from his hometown of Newport every morning, and you and he used to talk about going there to visit someday.
Other than fishing, Hugh had a lot of hobbies that brought him joy.
He loved playing Bridge, swimming in his pool, and going out to dinner.
Even in the hospital last week, he was trying to persuade the nurses and doctors coming in and out of his room to let him take them out to dinner.
He also really enjoyed classical music, opera, and Broadway musicals.
He had a very extensive music collection, which he used to keep in his basement. But as he got older, it became difficult for him to go down the stairs, so he wasn’t able to listen to music for a long time.
Well, when you moved him out to a one-story house, you set up a music and entertainment center for him right there in the living room – and he loved it, because he was finally able to listen to his record albums again.
And, of course, he loved playing golf.
When he retired in 1995, Hugh and Corrine bought a place out in Palm Desert, CA, where they could play golf year-round.
They also loved travelling. They went all over the world together: Africa, France, cruises. Italy and Israel were their favorite places.
Hugh was a very proud Jew.
He was a regular every Friday night at Temple Israel. It was clear how much he enjoyed being there.
Anita, you were always there with him.
You love that you got to spend the last two Hanukkahs with him – and how much fun it was to light the candles and sing the blessings together.
Deb and Paul, you remember how much he loved coming out to Dallas to have Seder with you and his grandchildren. That was a real highlight for him.
He loved his grandchildren: Lisa, and then Nic; Daniel, and then Alicia; Eric, and then Sara.
And his 8 great-grandchildren: Joshua, Kaden, Layla, Camden, Arianna, Ryane, Avery, and Everly.
I know you will all miss him dearly.
* * *
Dr. Hugh Levin was a kind and gentle man; a brilliant and hard-working doctor; and a loving husband and father – even if it was a little hard for him to show it sometimes.
Deb and Mike, you said he taught you, by his own example, that hard work pays off.
He raised you to be independent and expected you to be independent.
He built a hospital program that has surely saved countless lives.
He leaves a proud legacy.
Because in his life, Dr. Hugh Levin earned the most important crown of all – the crown of a good name.
Zichrono livrachah. May his memory be for a blessing.
By Rabbi Brian Stoller
“Warmth” may be the word I use to meditate on my experience serving as the visiting student rabbi at Temple Israel this past weekend. The smiles were wide enough to brighten even the darkest room. Of course, leading Shabbat services, engaging in text study, and delivering a d’var torah were a standalone blessing, allowing me the opportunity to play the role of a rabbi for a weekend, further invigorating my love of community, Jewish morals and ethics, and intellectual rigor. That being said, it is somewhat challenging for me to distinguish feelings of gratitude for the present moment from feelings of deep nostalgia. Standing in front of the congregation in which I grew up flooded back memories of religious school spaghetti dinners and the poignant conversations that followed. It reminded me of the hours upon hours spent studying liturgy, torah, and text for Bar Mitzvah. Childhood Shabbat songs and musical segments from interfaith choir rehearsals trickled into my ears. Simply put, returning to Temple brought warmth to my heart beyond comparison.
In this week’s parasha, parashat Sh’lach, the Jewish people travel from Mount Sinai toward the Promised Land. Interestingly enough, the Israelite people are not merely referred to as the traditional b’nei yisrael, the children of Israel. Rather, we can see the additional phrase of kol adat b’nei yisrael, the entire Israelite community. Temple Israel is not just my people–it is my Israelite community. It is my hope that our relationship continues to flourish in meaningful and fulfilling ways in the future. Kein y’hi ratzon, shabbat shalom!
It’s hard for me to believe I’ve completed my first year here at Temple. It’s been a great year, a whirlwind year – for me, at least. And for my family, too:
Moving to a new city and a new house. Getting to know the lay of the land, and the congregants, and the community. Building relationships with our lay leaders and our professional team. Learning, and growing into this new role.
Lindsay and Zachary started at their new schools and have made some nice new friends. Karen started a new job at Opera Omaha.
It’s been a year of transition, a year of change, and a year of growth. The congregation has embraced our family with open arms, and we are delighted to be here in Omaha and at Temple Israel.
It’s been a whirlwind year, for sure – but a fun year, and a meaningful year, too. And I want to thank all of you for welcoming us into your lives.
* * *
We had a great year as a congregation, and we have a lot to be proud of. Our lay leadership, with Rosie at the helm, has done a tremendous job of partnering with me and our professional team to set our direction going forward, and to lay the groundwork for success.
I’m proud of a great number of things we did this year – and I’d like to highlight a few of them.
First, our committees. One of Rosie’s priorities during her term was to re-ignite our committee-work in several core-value areas of Temple life – and she did that. And now, at the end of her presidency, these committees are energetic and high-functioning.
- Our Social Justice Committee – led by Geoff Silverstein, Sarah Gilbert, and Rabbi Berezin – is doing amazing work mobilizing our members to address the plague of hunger in Omaha.
- Our Caring Committee – under the leadership of Gretchen Radler and Cantor Shermet – is a compassionate and active presence in our lives, helping us when we’re at our most vulnerable.
- Our Tri-Faith Committee – headed by Lee Needelman, Lisa Lewis, and Bonni Leiserowitz, in partnership with me – is hard at work creating meaningful opportunities for us to connect with our Christian and Muslim friends.
- Our Membership Committee, under the leadership of the amazing Jessica Cohn, is busy welcoming our new members, and will work closely with our new Director of Congregational Engagement to develop a strategy for membership growth and integration.
- And our Art Committee – led by Todd Simon and Jack Becker – is doing some exciting visioning about how to enhance the beauty of our building with high-quality, warm, and thought-provoking art of many different mediums.
Secondly, we introduced some new ways of observing the Jewish holidays this year:
- We created a powerful and solemn new service for Tisha B’Av, where we reflected on the brokenness in the world and in our lives, and congregants who had lost a loved one in the past couple years were invited to light a candle in their memory.
- We celebrated Simchat Torah and Consecration last fall in our beautiful Simon Community Court with festive music, and lots of dancing – and we unrolled the Torah scrolls around the entire Community Court so our youngest children could see them.
- Our Leadership Development team created a fantastic Adult Purim, and our teens and Dani Howell wrote and performed a fun and funny Purim shpiel.
- Rabbi Berezin and her amazing team of volunteers created a fun and engaging Community Passover Seder, where everyone got to participate in telling the story by making Play-Do sculptures.
- And just a couple weeks ago, we celebrated Shavuot in our Community Court with a lively service, a community dairy dinner, and an evening of Torah study taught by the clergy.
On the engagement front, we launched two very successful new initiatives:
- As a way to get more kids and young families excited about services, Cantor Shermet and our member Sara Cowan created our new children’s choir for 2nd-5th-graders, and the choir sang at our new multi-generational “Chocolate Shabbat” service in April. Chocolate Shabbat was joyful and buzzing with energy, and it will become a regular fixture in our calendar on the third Friday of every month, starting in October.
- And as a way for us to get to know each other on a deeper level, Cat King partnered with Sally Kaplan and Lester Katz to launch Conversations with the Clergy – where small groups of congregants and clergy meet in a member’s home to talk about our Jewish stories. This is something that will be ongoing at Temple for at least the next couple of years.
* * *
This coming year, we’ll be focusing on creating as many vibrant portals, or entryways, into Jewish life as we can, so that you can connect with Judaism in ways that speak to your particular interests and passions.
We’ll also be making some exciting improvements to our high school program, in response to feedback from kids and parents at a listening session last month.
And finally, we will continue to focus on building and deepening our relationships with you, our congregants. Because to be a holy community is to be a community where we feel known, and loved, and embraced by people who genuinely care.
* * *
One of the truly amazing things about Temple Israel is the quality and commitment of our professional staff.
I feel blessed to work with a group of people who love this congregation deeply, who respect and admire each other, and who give their all to serving our community. I’d like to take a moment to recognize the outstanding work of my partners on our professional team.
Cantor Shermet – You’re the dean of our team. I am grateful to you for all you’ve done this year to bring a sense of continuity and comfort to our congregants in a time of great change. The work you’ve done to create our kids’ choir and inspire us with music has made a tremendous impact this year. Thank you for your leadership and your wise counsel, and for loving our congregation unconditionally.
Rabbi Berezin – You lead with sincerity, kindness, and affection. You have done outstanding work this year building our Rosh Chodesh community for women, our Tish group for adults in their 30s and 40s, and of course, our Social Justice initiatives. It’s a real testament to your talent and presence that, after only two years here, there are so many congregants who already look to you as their rabbi and spiritual guide.
Dennis – You are a caring, devoted, bedrock presence in our Temple. Your work ethic is beyond compare; we can always count on you to keep us fiscally responsible, to have our backs, and to get things done. Thank you for supporting us in everything we do.
Sharon – Thank you for bringing your experience and your steady hand to our team, and for leading our school with wisdom, kindness, intention. It’s so evident how much you love our children, and how they love you. In addition to running our school, you’ve done excellent work this year organizing our new bakers’ crew and making it possible for our youngest kids to have an amazing summer-camping experience at OSRUI. Thank you!
Aliyah – Thank you for being such a cheerful, optimistic, and energetic presence on our team. With your enthusiasm and sincerity, you bring out the best in our teens and young people. We’re going to miss having you on our professional team, but we are excited that you’ll continue to be a teacher in our school and an active volunteer as a congregant!
Cassandra – You have stepped into your new role as Director of Communications with confidence, energy, and incredible skill. I am grateful to you for your creativity, your outstanding work-ethic, and your enduring devotion to Temple. We are so incredibly blessed to have you on our team!
I know Misty isn’t here today, but you all need to know – as I’m sure many of you do – we would be nowhere without Misty. She is the rock of the staff – our go-to person for pretty much everything. Misty is among the most efficient, productive people I have ever worked with. All of us are so grateful to Misty for holding us up every day and for quietly and elegantly enabling us to do what we do.
I also want to say a big thank you to our office team:
Michelle Shea, who greets our congregants so warmly when the call and visit; Jen Goodman, who helps Sharon run our school with such intention and compassion; Vicki Ducharme and Jeff Schweid, who manage our books with such precision and thoughtfulness; and, of course, Scott Anderson and Darius Daye for keeping our building humming and for being such friendly, welcoming presences for our community.
Scott, I love how you greet people in the Community Court before services with a big smile on your face and a hearty “Shabbat Shalom!” Your presence makes such a positive impact on our congregation, and we’re grateful to you for all you do.
And, finally, Rabbi Azriel – We are blessed by your continued presence in our community as our teacher, our mentor, our sage, our confidante, our rabbi, and our friend. Your visionary leadership and your love for our people reverberate so strongly through the congregation and through the Tri-Faith Initiative. We are grateful that you remain such a strong and caring presence in our lives.
* * *
And now, to the woman of the hour.
Our Sages say in Pirkei Avot: “Aseh l’kha rav, uk’neh l’kha chaver – Find yourself a teacher, get yourself a friend.”
Rosie, in this past year, as I’ve transitioned into this new role, you have been a supportive, caring, compassionate, wise, and trusted advisor to me.
You’ve taught me about this community. You’ve modeled for me how to lead with vision and humility.
You have given of yourself tirelessly and lovingly. You are always available to talk through a problem, brainstorm ideas, or be a non-anxious presence and a good listener.
We have built what I consider to be a truly sacred partnership – and also a deeply meaningful and valued friendship.
“Find yourself a teacher, get yourself a friend.” Thank you, Rosie, for being my teacher and my friend.
And thank you for being our teacher and our friend.
The leaders of this congregation have a saying: “The right president comes along at the right time.”
Rosie, there is absolutely no question that you were the right person to lead our congregation during the period of great transition these last couple years.
After the retirement of our beloved Rabbi Azriel and the departure of our adored Associate Rabbi Brown, you and your brilliant team of lay leaders charted the course for Temple Israel’s future.
You oversaw the hiring of our interim Rabbi Crystal, the magnificent selection of Rabbi Berezin, and the decision to bring me here as your new senior rabbi.
Such significant change in a congregation’s clergy leadership is not easy to manage, and it could have been quite disruptive to the community. But thank God we had Rosie Zweiback leading us through it – with her steady hand, her gentle presence, her innate wisdom, and her close personal relationships with the people of our congregation.
Oh, and we can’t forget that magical power she has – the fact that people just can’t say “no” to Rosie!
Rosie, that’s because we admire you so much, and everything you bring to the table as our leader:
–You’re a visionary, and at the same time, you also have an excellent ability to implement on a practical level.
–You’re inviting and considerate of all opinions, and yet firm in leading us in the direction you know we need to go.
–You’re fully present in the moment, and you also have an incredible ability to see beyond the horizon.
–And most importantly, you lead with compassion, with genuine love for your people, and with a smile on your face.
Yasher koach, Rosie, on an incredibly successful presidency. Thank you for being our teacher and our friend.
* * *
Andie, Rosie has set the table for you beautifully. And I know that, like her, you are the right president for us at the right time.
Now that we’ve made it through our biggest transitions in leadership, you are ready to move us ahead, to think big, and to blaze the trail for the next chapter of Temple Israel’s journey.
On a personal level, Andie – you and I became fast friends from the time you co-chaired my search committee, and we’ve built a strong partnership over the last year.
We consult with each other constantly, and we share a vision for where we’d like to lead this congregation.
You will be an outstanding president because you are energetic, bold, and forward-looking. You have a remarkable ability to navigate challenges with finesse and sharp insight, and you are deeply attuned with and attentive to the community’s needs.
All of us on the professional team are incredibly excited about the next two years, and we are ready to move forward together.
As we complete one chapter in Temple’s story and begin another, I offer this prayer from our tradition: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – May we be strong, may we be strong, and may we strengthen one another.
I’d like to personally invite you to join me on Friday June 8-Saturday June 9 for a joyful, energetic, and deeply spiritual musical Shabbat experience featuring the inspiring Jewish music band – and my dear friends – Soul Zimra. We’ll welcome Shabbat Friday evening with a family picnic and outdoor musical service in Temple Israel’s magnificent amphitheater, and pray again together on Saturday morning in our beautiful chapel.
Music, our tradition says, is the language of the soul. My friends Andy Dennen, Marcus Newman, and Gary Schaffel formed Soul Zimra in order to “bring meaning, energy, transcendence, and light to prayer.” With a musical style combining the acoustic guitar, the bass guitar, and the mandolin, Soul Zimra’s unique approach is to blend modern secular folk, rock, blues, and other familiar songs with traditional liturgy to make the prayer experience powerful, participatory, contemporary, and relevant to our lives today. Since they formed the band seven years ago, Andy, Marcus, and Gary have led Shabbat morning services weekly at my former synagogue, Congregation BJBE, in Deerfield, IL, headlined numerous Jewish communal events in the Chicagoland area, and led prayer as artists-in-residence at synagogues around the Midwest. I am so excited to welcome them to Temple Israel, and I hope you will come pray with us! Take it from me – this is a spiritual experience you will not want to miss!
Here’s the schedule for Soul Zimra’s visit on June 8-9:
Friday, June 8
5:15 p.m. – Family Shabbat Cookout/Picnic
6 p.m. – Shabbat Service Featuring Soul Zimra in our Outdoor Amphitheater
Saturday, June 9
9:15 a.m. – Torah Study: “Music: The Language of the Soul” with Rabbi Stoller and Soul Zimra
10:30 a.m. – Shabbat Morning Service Featuring Soul Zimra
If you look around the walls of our sanctuary, you will see the words of our evening prayer, Hashkivienu. In an amazing architectural feat, you can read the words from the inside as well as the outside. Simply put, our prayer is for peace. We ask God to spread over us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace.
A shelter of peace; what an incredible prayer. Here at Temple Israel, we strive each and every day to make that prayer a reality. We want Temple Israel to be a shelter of peace for all who enter it. We pray that every person who walks through our doors feels welcome, accepted, embraced, and loved. But it is not enough to demonstrate these values inside the walls of our building alone, we have to make sure we are embodying these values each and every day, inside temple, and out of it.
This is one of the many reasons that we are so excited that Temple Israel will have a strong presence at the Heartland PRIDE Parade this year. Partnering with Beth El, our two congregations have created a joint Task Force to mobilize our communities. Our communities will walk together, hand-in-hand, to demonstrate our support and embody the values that we hold dear. We hope that you will join us on Saturday, June 30 for this event as we celebrate Shabbat by praying with our feet. Together, we can take another step in spreading our sukkat shalom, our shelter of peace, over all of our Omaha community.
Temple Israel is taking part in the Heartland Pride Parade on June 30, 2018, and all congregants and friends are invited to join this fun, family-friendly event. Organized by the TI Pride Task Force, our presence at the Heartland Pride Parade will show congregational support for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) members and publicly demonstrate Reform Judaism’s values.
“One of our goals at Temple Israel and in Reform Judaism as a movement is that all people feel included and accepted for who they are,” says Rabbi Deana Berezin. “We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and we each have within us a spark of Divinity. We strive to make sure that every person who walks through the doors at Temple feels that they are treated with dignity, respect, acceptance, and love.”
Plans for Temple Israel’s parade entry include a rainbow-hued chuppah, t-shirts, and a banner. We will walk alongside other congregations of faith, community organizations, and businesses that share our values, reinforcing a message of love and acceptance of our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors.
The TI Pride Task Force started under the lay leadership of Robert Friedman, a Temple Israel member who wanted to help organize our involvement in issues and events for LGBTQ+ congregants and allies. With the support of Temple Israel’s clergy and the Board of Directors, TI Pride hosted a Shabbat dinner in February and started planning for the Heartland Pride Parade after hearing great enthusiasm for the idea.
“This is an exciting effort to show that Temple Israel is welcoming and loving to all people regardless of age, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” Friedman says. “Part of our mission as Jews is to repair the world. Marching in this parade is a big step forward for love and equality not only in our congregation, but also in our community. It is only through solidarity that we thrive and this effort to march in the parade shows the solidarity of our congregation.”
There are many ways to join in the festivities and support TI Pride. Everyone is invited to walk the parade route with the Temple Israel group in the morning of June 30 in Council Bluffs, IA; mark your calendar now and a schedule for the day will be available soon. Please send an email to RSVP@templeisraelomaha.com to let us know if you’re planning to walk at the parade and to reserve a t-shirt. We also need volunteers to help at the parade, to carry water and sunscreen. Look for a table in the Simon Community Court on upcoming Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings to sign up and pre-order your t-shirt.
After the Heartland Pride Parade, the TI Pride Task Force will continue hosting and promoting events for LGBTQ+ members and allies in our congregation and in the wider community. Contact Robert Friedman at email@example.com if you are interested in future opportunities or to learn more about our TI Pride Task Force. Or join us at our next task force meeting on April 22, at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Israel.
As we prepare to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt at Passover this Friday night, now is a time of year when we Jews think about the meaning of freedom, justice, law, and responsibility. Last week at the annual gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), I had the honor of opening the convention with a teaching on these issues, and I’d like to share that teaching with you:
The eleventh blessing of the weekday Amidah is a prayer for judges and the justice system. It says:
Pour Your spirit upon the rulers of all lands;
guide them that they may govern justly.
O may You alone rule over us in steadfast love and compassion.
Barukh atah Adonai, ohev tzedakah u’mishpat
Blessed are You Adonai, who loves righteousness and justice.
Why does this prayer conclude by mentioning both tzedakah and mishpat? Since it’s about judges and governance, wouldn’t it have been sufficient for it to say: “Blessed are You Adonai, who loves justice”? What does tzedakah have to do with the law?
This pairing of mishpat (justice/law) and tzedakah (righteousness) in relation to the justice system goes all the way back to the Tanakh – and our ancient Sages found it perplexing. They say in the Talmud: “Surely, where there is mishpat there is no tzedakah, and where there is tzedakah, there is no mishpat!” In other words, these two concepts would seem on their face to be mutually exclusive: Law is law, and righteousness is righteousness – and the one has nothing to do with the other.
In resolving this difficulty, our Sages discover a new concept of justice – “a synthesis of opposites,” as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik puts it – and this new concept would inform Jewish jurisprudence from that point forward. They call it: Mishpat she-yesh bo tzedakah – law that incorporates righteousness.
Rabbi Soloveitchik says that, in Jewish thought, mishpat and tzedakah – law and righteousness – are not mutually exclusive. Rather, he says, they are “two sides of the same coin.”
Mishpat (justice/law) refers to the rules, and the principles, and the processes that are written in law books and constitutions. These rules and principles are the backbone of the justice system. By necessity, they are formal and formulaic, and they are designed to be applied uniformly to everyone.
In mishpat, justice is blind.
But when it comes to real life, justice cannot be completely blind. It can’t be blind to the particular circumstances in which people exist and act, or the nuances and vagaries of practical living. And that’s where tzedakah comes in.
Tzedakah is the empathic, compassionate, human dimension of justice. It’s found not in books, but in life. It’s about real people, living day to day. It’s about listening to their stories, and empathizing with them.
It’s about understanding that life is messy and complicated, and that, sometimes, mechanically reading the text without also considering the context – and applying the rules without also considering what is right – may produce lawful outcomes, but not always just outcomes.
As Soloveitchik puts it: “Law that lacks tzedakah, that does not draw from the wellsprings of feelings and tenderness, of heartfelt ways of pleasantness and inner kindliness, that is confined by its boundaries and does not break through its borders to go beyond what the law requires – such law is absolute wickedness.”
The antidote to such wickedness is Mishpat she-yesh bo tzedakah – law that incorporates righteousness. This, in our tradition, is the meaning of true justice.
Barukh atah Adonai, ohev tzedakah u’mishpat.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who loves righteousness and justice.