(This article originally appeared in the Omaha Jewish Press.)
As part of their Jewish education, Temple Israel’s Religious School faculty believe it’s important to take their students out of the classroom and introduce them to some real-world applications of what it means to be Jewish.
“These field trips will enhance our kids’ understanding of not only the theory of Judaism as a religion, but also the practice of Judaism and what it means in the context of the greater Omaha community,” said Religious School Principal Ariella Lowensohn.
First and second graders will visit the three Omaha synagogues on Sunday, October 21, where they will be given tours of the sanctuaries by the rabbis. Each rabbi will speak to the students about the differences in worship between the three branches of Judaism and quiz them on certain objects of importance, like the eternal flames and the arks.
“It is good for the kids to see the other places and to realize that Temple is not the only place for Jews in Omaha,” said first grade teacher Dora Goldstrom.
“We want them to realize there’s more than just Temple Israel, that there’s a larger Jewish community [in Omaha] and that there are differences within the community,” added Debbie Finnicum, who also teaches first grade.
First and second graders will also get an up close look at the Torah, according to second grade teacher Jill Idelman.
“This might be the first time a student has ever seen the Torah up close,” Idelman said. “We also discuss God and other subjects, like synagogue, prayer and Jewish worship.”
Second graders will have an additional field trip in early November, when they take a trip to the Nebraska Humane Society, where they will be given a tour of the facility by longtime Humane Society volunteer Ron Brodkey. The students will be shown all the work that goes into protecting Omaha’s animals.
“The most enjoyable time for the students is when we have the time spent in the Cat House and the Dog Adoption Kennel,” Jill Idelman said. “The kids love to talk to the animals and even cross their fingers that parents will bring them on a return visit to select a pet of their own.”
A member of Temple Israel’s clergy often joins the students on this particular field trip, Idelman said. The children are given “a lesson on the importance of keeping the mitzvah of kindness to animals. The students learn that in Judaism we take care of animals as God’s creatures.”
Before the field trip, the second graders vote on a charity to give their tzedakah money to.
“Generally, it is unanimously voted to give their money to the Humane Society,” Idelman said. “On the day of our visit, all of the tzedakah that the children bring goes in the large donation container at the Humane Society.”
While the younger students are learning about Judaism and animals, the fifth grade students will visit the Omaha Food Bank on October 5, where they will help sort cans of food. With this field trip coming shortly after Yom Kippur, during which the congregation is asked to make a donation to the Food Bank, it is an opportunity for the students to see firsthand where those donations go and how they get into the hands of those who need them.
On March 6, sixth graders will visit the Temple Israel Cemetery, where they will help bury old prayer books with the clergy as part of an ancient tradition of not destroying sacred writings.
In Joan Cooper’s eighth grade class, she hopes to instill in her students a sense of community by encouraging them to volunteer for various services around Omaha, such as creating a non-smoking campaign, complete with posters and flyers, for National Smoke Out Day, and to take part in Keep Omaha Beautiful, picking up trash.
The students will also work to provide some basic necessities, like new underwear, for children in foster care who are often taken from their homes without anything but the clothes on their backs.
Cooper’s students made calls to elderly Temple Israel members who may or may not have a young person like a grandchild in their life to wish them a happy new year. The students had to decide for themselves what they would say and write their own scripts.
“It’s really getting [the students] to do the footwork,” Cooper said. “Because what I see is we expect our adults to just go out and do something, but they’re never learned how. The Board never learns how to make that call to elderly congregants to say ‘Happy New Year.’ So if I teach the kids now in eighth grade how to make that call and what to say on that call, maybe they’ll be adults of the future who won’t find it so difficult to do things that should just come naturally.”
All of these extracurricular activities that Temple Israel students take part in are supposed to open their eyes to the wider world around them, outside of Temple Israel’s walls, and also to prepare them for the field trips they’ll be taking once they reach high school.
Freshmen will travel to New York City with Rabbi Josh Brown, where they will “explore the gateway to American Jewry and the greatest melting pot of American culture,” while sophomores will visit Washington D.C. in March with Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, where they will attend the Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Social Justice Seminar.
Juniors and seniors will alternate trips. This year they will visit the University of Kansas with Cantor Wendy Shermet, where they will explore the campus, Hillel and the Jewish Studies department.
“The goal of this trip is to give our students a taste of what Jewish life in a college environment can be,” Program Director Wendy Goldberg said.
Next year’s juniors and seniors will travel to Israel with Rabbi Brown and other members of the congregation.
“The idea is to prepare our students for the world the best we can by introducing them to different ideas and communities that they either may not be aware of or have had much contact with,” Principal Lowensohn said.
CORRECTION: In the original Jewish Press article, the 1st and 2nd graders’ field trip to the various Omaha-area synagogues was mistakenly listed as being on October 7. The field trip is actually on October 21 and the article has been corrected.