Monday, July 23, 2012

Jane Fonda. Jimmy Carter, and the Chafetz Chaim

Last night I was at a gala event for a local independent film theatre here in Omaha.  Miriam and I are friends with the owner / director Rachel Jacobson as well as with her extended family.
The event was a conversation with Jane Fonda, moderated by academy award winning director Alexander Payne.  Actress Laura Dern also made an appearance.

Payne is from Omaha originally and his movie, About Schmidt, took place in, and was filmed in Omaha.

I remember clearly a strange coincidence that occurred on my first trip to Omaha in 2001.  I was in a taxi leaving for the airport and an advertisement for the movie About Schmidt came on the radio and I heard Jack Nicholson's voice say the line, "How in the hell did I end up in Omaha?"

Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda's father, was also originally from Nebraska.  When she was little, Omaha's central location made it a convenient hub for airlines.  Planes would stop in Omaha and people would be laid over here for hours, sometimes an entire day.  While most people would wait at the airport, she would spend time with her Omaha relatives. 

At Beth Israel we continue to serve as a crossroads for Jews from all over the world and all walks of life.  That is one of the great things that makes Every Shabbat at Beth Israel a Shabbaton!
There is hardly a shabbat over the course of the year when our community is not hosting someone here on business, visiting family, or just passing through on a drive cross country.

In fact, Miriam and I met because her mother had a speaking engagement in Omaha and she needed a place for shabbat.  I put her up in the community and hosted her for a meal at my home.  She told me that she had an attractive daughter who lived in Phoenix - a warm climate that is a direct flight from Omaha.  Sold!  The rest is history.

Some weeks we are fortunate to host multiple guests at one time.  This past shabbat we had an amazing cast of characters!
  • In Western Nebraska there are a few companies that produce Kosher meat.  It is not uncommon for us to host some of the shochtim (ritual slaughterers) who work in those plants.  This week we had the pleasure of hosting one.
  • AJSS, American Jewish Society for Service, runs a program every year for teenagers.  Jewish teens from all over the country, of all affiliations and denominations, come to the Midwest and do service programs and participate in builds with Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity.  This year they are also helping with clean up in Joplin, MO from the devastating tornado last year.  As we have in previous years, we had the pleasure of hosting them for Shabbat as well.
  • A group of four Yeshiva students from the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Queens, NY was driving cross country to Los Angeles.  They found us on the Internet and called and asked if we could host them for shabbat as well.  By coincidence I am related to two of them.  One is my mother's father's brother's son's wife's sister's son; and the other is my mother's father's brother's son's daughter's fiance (not exactly related yet, but as of late August he will be my second cousin.)
None of the kids on the AJSS trip were from Orthodox homes, most had never spent shabbat in an Orthodox community, and some had never really spent time with an Orthodox Jew.  Over shabbat they had the opportunity to meet with the other guests and with our community and they learned a great deal. 

At the kiddush after services on shabbat the AJSS kids got to hear from our member Sherry Taxman, an active board member of Omaha's habitat for humanity. 
After kiddush my new friend and colleague, Rabbi Josh Brown came to Beth Israel to speak to the kids. Rabbi Brown is the new assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel, Omaha's reform shul, and he spoke to them about Temple Israel's new tri-faith initiative

I usually give a class before mincha, but instead I asked our guests from the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva to speak about the life of a Yeshiva student.  My congregation and the AJSS kids were fascinated to learn about the Yeshiva world. 

The students described their intense daily learning schedule, they spoke about their personal backgrounds and plans for the future, and even things like the social life of a Yeshiva student.  They explained that all Yeshivas share certain core values, but each Yeshiva has its own particular values that it emphasizes and stresses. 

Chofetz Chaim greatly stresses physical health and all of the students are encouraged to allocate time every day to some type of physical activity and exercise.

Chofetz Chaim also emphasizes the spreading of Torah by living and working in communities outside of New York.  They have branches all over North America, and students are required to do stints of learning in branches outside of New York.  Maybe one day we will have a branch out here in Omaha.

And mostly, Chofetz Chaim stresses character development, just like the Chofetz Chaim for whom the Yeshiva was named.  The Yeshiva has worked hard to create a certain reputation about their students.  They want people to say, "that young man has good manners.  He must be a Chofetz Chaim guy."

They added some words about the recent death of Rabbi Elyashiv and how they personally and the Yeshiva world as a whole were influenced by his life and saddened by his death. 

Then they opened up for questions.

The big question that spurred the most discussion was - what do their female counterparts do while they are in Yeshiva?

The girls do have a post high school seminary experience, but it is only one or two years.  The girls in their world are generally looking for a husband who will learn in Yeshiva for the first few years of their marriage.  In anticipation of that they seek educational opportunities that will enable them to support their husbands for a few years. 
Chofetz Chaim encourages all of its students to enter the work force when they finish in yeshiva and allows for its students to attend night classes towards a college degree, a masters degree, or a law degree. 
But for the first few years of marriage, the women are the primary bread winners.  It was commented that, ironically, the Yeshiva culture is in someways and ultra feminist society where the women are the providers. 

We ended Shabbat with our usually musical Havdallah.  Right afterwards, one of the kids from AJSS came to thank me.  He told me he had never really met Orthodox people before and this Shabbat shattered all of his prejudices and preconceived notions.  When he first heard that he was going to be spending Shabbat with an Orthodox family, the first thing that went through his head was, "Oh my gosh, I hope they speak English!"  He somehow imagined that all Orthodox people speak only Yiddish. 

He, his fellow teens, and our entire community learned a great deal about each other, breaking stereotypes, building friendships, and reminding ourselves the entire Jewish people are one family. 
All in all, it was a great shabbat at Beth Israel!


  1. I'm in awe of how everyone is welcome by you.

    We have guests infrequently and usually no strangers.

    It's quite impressive.

    I'm also impressed by the fact that a Yeshivah encourages physical exercise, that's something that's just too rare.

  2. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Gross are extraordinarily gracious hosts.

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