From the beginning of Temple Israel’s new semester, Rabbi Josh Brown has been discussing Jewish identity with the 9th grade students as part of the new Temple Teen Night curriculum. Meeting on Wednesday nights, Rabbi Brown and his class talk about what it means to be Jewish and the wide variety of Jewish belief, and when it came time to choose where the students would go on their class trip, it was a no-brainer.
“The immigrant story is so vivid in New York, and continues to be a part of the story of New York,” Rabbi Brown said. “Everywhere we walked there were people from different backgrounds, people speaking different languages. It’s a very real firsthand immigrant experience. Whether our kids are aware of it or not, that experience is true for all Jews in America, and so it’s part of their identity. So when we talk about being cultural Jews, a lot of that culture comes from the Jewish experience in New York.”
The 9th graders who went to New York City with Rabbi Brown included Sophie Budwig, Brandon Idelman, Solomon Marburg, Madelin Miller, Michael Militzer, Abby Reiss, Gavin Rogers and Sierra Simpson. The group was also accompanied by Omaha Shlicha Gili Gutwirth.
In order to provide for the students a proper, authentic Jewish New York experience, Rabbi Brown devised an itinerary that jam-packed as much Jewishness as possible into the four-day visit, from visiting Central Synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States, for the Saturday morning Shabbat service to having a nosh at the famous Katz’s Deli, perhaps best known outside of Manhattan as the backdrop of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s memorable scene in When Harry Met Sally.
Rabbi Brown took the class on a tour of the Lower East Side and explained to them the neighborhood’s Jewish history and how that history relates to its current occupants, Chinese immigrants.
“It’s actually an extension of Chinatown now,” Rabbi Brown said. “It was fascinating to look at the buildings that still had a Star of David and at one time had all Hebrew writing, and now all that writing is all in Chinese characters with no English.”
Fourteen-year-old Sophie Budwig had visited New York City before, with her grandmother, but this time she made it a point to pay more attention to the Jewishness of the city. In fact, she and her classmates made a game of it.
“We had a competition to find kippahs and Jewish signs in Hebrew,” Sophie said. ““It was a lot different [from her previous trip], because I noticed more Jewish people walking around. It was more noticing the Jewish side of New York.”
To help understand why New York City has such a vibrant Jewish history, the class also visited Ellis Island, where many Jewish immigrants first entered the United States.
“The kids were really able to see that the Jewish community started very modestly as peddlers and shop owners,” Rabbi Brown said. “That’s an important piece for them to know, as they think about their relatives coming through Ellis Island, and they think about perhaps parents or grandparents who lived in New York. And even if they didn’t, just to know that New York for American Jews is the cultural center historically for American Judaism.”
The kids learned about the hoops their immigrant ancestors had to jump through before they were allowed off the island and into the country.
“They had to check for disease, how healthy you were, if you had money, and if you qualified for living here,” Brandon Idelman said. “Women couldn’t leave the island without a male. They either had to already live here or they had to get married on the island.”
On Friday evening, the class went to services at B’nai Jeshurun, the second synagogue ever founded in New York City. Built in 1825, the synagogue is part of a thriving community.
“[It] is a beautiful sanctuary and a really inspiring service, with people dancing in the aisles during Lecha Dodi and a packed sanctuary with hundreds of people every Friday night,” Rabbi Brown said.
Sophie Budwig was impressed with how fervently the congregation enjoyed the service.
“Even though they’re in a big city and must be busy all the time, they take time to be Jewish and celebrate,” she said. “There was a lot of dancing and stuff going on. They seemed happy and liked being there.”
Not everything about the trip was centered on Judaism, however. The class took in a Broadway musical their first night in the city and were able to get some much needed shopping done.
“We made fun of them because all they wanted to do was go to stores that they have in Omaha,” Rabbi Brown said. “They wanted to go to Starbucks, Forever 21 and Champs Sports.”
Making sure the kids had a real New York City experience was just as important to Rabbi Brown as learning about the Jewish history of the city.
“It’s great to take our kids into Times Square and to look around and see how incredible this part of our country is,” Rabbi Brown said. “To go to Ellis Island and learn about the history [is great], but also to just have experience riding on a subway with thousands of other people and realize that life in Omaha is, it might be like life in a lot of America, but it’s not like life everywhere in America. Their eyes were opened to all sorts of experiences that they couldn’t have had here and perhaps could only have had in New York.”
When the tired group returned to Omaha late Sunday night, Rabbi Brown was thrilled with how well the trip went and he hopes it’s something the kids will carry with them as they grow up.
“I think they feel this special bond to each other and I hope that’s something that remains,” he said. “To have [this trip] with their synagogue means that this is their primary community. These are the people that they can go really learn about their identity with, and these are the people that they’ll stay in touch with long past high school, because they’re always going to be Jewish and these are their Jewish friends.”