Friday, February 10, 2012

Travel Blog, South Florida Edition!

Last Shabbat the Orthodox Union (OU) hosted a weekend program in South Florida.  From Thursday night until Sunday morning they had lectures and programs in 10 different synagogues throughout south Florida.  On Shabbat each synagogue hosted a scholar in residence representing the OU - and I was asked to represent the OU in Boynton Beach Florida at congregation Anshe Chesed.

Miriam and I arrived in Boynton Beach on Friday afternoon and were greeted by some of the young leadership of the community.  Friday night I gave a short dvar Torah to the congregation and then Miriam and I went to the home of the president of the congregation for Friday night dinner.  At dinner he gave us a brief history of the shul and the community.

Until a few years ago Boynton Beach did not have a community shul.  For a number of years there was a Rabbi who privately owned a synagogue, but as the population grew and formed a critical mass of active retirees, second home owners, and young couples, they decided it was time to form a community and build a shul of their own.

Currently they daven in a house that they purchased, but they are nearing completion of a beautiful new building.  They do not have a full time Rabbi, but every other week they have a dynamic young Rabbi from Yeshiva University who spends shabbat with them - and he happens to be my cousin Avi Billet.  As the community grows they will likely hire a full time Rabbi.

After dinner we headed to the home of one of the other young couples where the community came for an oneg Shabbat.  At the oneg I spoke about the great things that we are doing here in Omaha and then took some questions.  I got all the usual questions, "Is Warren Buffet a member of your shul?"  "When will Omaha Steaks be Kosher?"  and "How cold is it there?"
There was a nice crowd, good food, and we had a great time meeting the community.

The next day I gave a class on the parshah before davening and the sermon.  For the sermon I began with some words from the parsha and then spoke about all of the ways that the Orthodox Union has helped Beth Israel.  I spoke about three great OU programs that we had over the last few years.

1. We had Rabbi Chaim Loike speak to us.  Rabbi Loike is the OU's expert on birds.  He did an unforgettable program at the Freidel Jewish academy in conjunction with Nebraska Parrot Rescue.  Rabbi Loike showed the kids a dozen different exotic birds and used them to teach the kids about what the Gemara used as indicia for identifying Kosher and non-Kosher birds.  He also spoke twice over shabbat and impressed everyone with the extent of scientific knowledge that is necessary to properly learn Torah.

2. Most people are familiar with the OU's program Yachad.  Yachad does programming for people with disabilities, and also works to sensitize synagogues, day schools, youth groups, and communities to the importance of being inclusive to everyone.  We have a very active Yachad chapter in Omaha.  But most people are not aware of a very important program from the OU called Our Way. Our Way works with the Jewish deaf.  If is run by a man named Rabbi Liederfeind out of the OU office in new york.  Rabbi Liederfeind has made it his business to get to know personally and engage every single deaf Jew in North America.  Being deaf can be very isolating and there is a very high rate of alienation and disengagement from the jewish community amongst the Jewish deaf.  Rabbi Leiderfeind along with Rabbi David Kastor, who is himself deaf, came to our community to spend Shabbat with Beth Israel and with the deaf Jews of Omaha of all affiliations.  Shabbat services were done to accommodate the deaf participants and to teach us ways, besides hiring an interpreter, that we could be more sensitive to the deaf members of our community.  It was an incredible eye opening experience for everyone.

3. The OU runs the best of all Israel summer programs - NCSY kollel!  Omaha had the great privilege of sending a high school student on NCSY kollel last summer and that boy has brought incredible energy to the community.  NCSY and the OU are creating the leaders who will build the Jewish community of the future.

Services were really nice.  There were over 100 people there, the house was completely packed.  The people ranged from young families all the way to retirees with everything in between.  They had a hot kiddush after davening that was very good (but we still missed Betty's cookies form home!)

We ate lunch at the home of some friends of my parents from New Jersey who spend the winter in Boynton.  After lunch I visited a friend who is living there and spent some time catching up until an hour before mincha when I gave my final lecture.  I gave a lecture that I had given in Omaha some time ago where I compare the play Fiddler on the Roof to the original works of Shalom aleichem and discuss the Jewish concepts represented in both.

After mincha there was a beautiful shalosh seudot where we sang songs and I gave one last dvar Torah thanking the community for their hospitality.
Miriam and I had a really great time meeting everyone in the community and we hope to visit again next time we are in South Florida.

That night we went to my sister and brother-in-law who live in Boca Raton where we spent the night.
The next morning I attended OU programming in Boca.  I got to hear two lectures from Rabbi Hershel Shacter from Yeshiva University.  In the words of the young boy from Omaha who got to know Rav Shacter at NCSY kollel - Rav Shacter is awesome!!!!   It is hard to explain to someone who has never heard him speak.  He has a complete encyclopedic knowledge of what seems to be the entire length and breadth of the Torah.  When he speaks he will take you through literally dozens and dozens of sources connecting seemingly unrelated topics and weaving them together seamlessly.  He cites obscure sources with profound ideas and cites familiar sources adding new creative incites that seem so obvious and yet you never thought of it before.  His lectures can be appreciated by the most advanced and learned Rabbis as well as the novice simultaneously.  His topic was a page of Gemara in massechet sanhedrin about a pretty technical topic.  If witnesses testify in case A, then subsequently in case B, then they are proven to have perjured in case A do we retroactively discredit their testimony in case B or do we consider it to stand because at the time of testimony they had not been discredited yet.  He spoke on that  non-stop with no questions, no breaks, barely even stopping for air, for over an hour.
Seems boring, dry, and complicated and yet he had an audience of hundreds captivated!  He did not lose my attention for even one second and I scarcely had time to take in one point before he moved on to the next one!  To learn Torah from Rav Shacter is to truly experience the honor of Torah.  Every time I hear him I am proud to be a graduate of Yeshiva University.  I hope that one day i have an opportunity to bring him to Omaha so that my community can experience Rav Shacter.

After Rav Shacter's lecture I heard my old boss Rabbi Steven Weil speak.  I worked for Rabbi Weil when he was still the head Rabbi of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills.  Currently he is the national director of the Orthodox Union.  He spoke about the problems facing the national Orthodox community and what the OU is doing to address them.  The bulk of his speech dealt with the Yeshiva tuition crisis.  As tuition rises it is become harder and harder for families to afford to educate their children.  There is no silver bullet solution to this problem.  One of the prongs to the OU's approach is governmental and the OU's Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) is working hard with legislatures in different states to come up with ways to give families a choice of where they can educate their kids.

That night my brother-in-law hosted his annual gala Superbowl party.  Over 200 people came to watch the game at his house and to feast on the delicious food that he and some other guys in the community prepared.  There were a couple of celebrities who showed up at the party including the internationally known Israeli singer Dudu Fisher!  I happen to be a huge fan from when I was a kid and it was great to get to know him and his wife in person.  I was in contact with his agent and asked how much an appearance in Omaha would cost...let's just say, it may not happen anytime soon.

All in all it was a fabulous trip.  Miriam and I and the girls had a great time.  I hope I represented the OU well, and I was proud to share all of the great things that are going on here in Omaha.

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