Monday, September 30, 2013

Shmuley, Genocide, and Challenging God

This week is the premier of Good Shabbos Nebraska, our new program at Beth Israel.  Where we dump the pulpit and learn Torah together as a congregation.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, our first guest is America's Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

In preparation for Shmuley's visit I bought a copy of his new book The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.  (The book is on sale for only $10 on his website)

Shmuley addresses the age old question of Why do Bad things happen to Good people?

***Spoiler alert***

Shmuley challenges those who say that God has His reasons and we just have to trust him.  He should not accept that those who are suffering must have done something to deserve that suffering.  Rather,
"do as Job.  Assert your righteousness, hold God accountable, challenge fate, and demand that suffering finally end."
Shmuley is certainly doing his part to end tragedy and suffering in the world.  Just yesterday he held a massive event in New York City with billionaire philanthropists Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhart, featuring Elie Weisel and Rwanda President Paul Kagame.  The purpose of the event was to inspire a call to action against the tragedies going on right now in Syria.

Shmuley could not be coming for a more appropriate episode of Good Shabbos Nebraska.  This week, Jews around the world are reading the section of the Torah that talks about Noach and the flood that destroyed the world.  The flood was the first global genocide and it was brought about by God.

Join us as we learn the parshah together and hear from Shmuley what he thinks about this sort of Divine Justice and how the Torah relates to current events.

Good Shabbos Nebraska is every Shabbos morning at 10 am.  Only at Beth Israel Synagogue.  Where every shabbos is a shabbaton!

Sunday, September 29, 2013


This week is the premier of GOOD SHABBOS NEBRASKA -American's favorits Shabbos morning talk show.

The city of Omaha has 6,000 Jews of which less than 2% attend synagogue on any given Shabbos morning. That is not a healthy statistic for any Jewish community.  

As I mentioned in a recent op ed for the Omaha Jewish Press, the most authoritative polling institute for religious life is the Pew Research Center.  Without rattling off any statistics, the very fact that they call themselves the PEW center tells us that PEWs - those benches that we have in Synagogues - are a reliable indicator of a communities vitality.  The JEW to PEW ratio in Omaha does not speak well for our community.

I chose the synagogue business as a career path because I have always believed, and continue to believe, that shuls build community.  When people go to shul they become more educated Jews, more passionate Jews, and more caring Jews.

When people don't go to shul their Torah knowledge suffers, they become detached from the needs of the community, and they become apathetic and start to wonder why we need a Jewish community in the first place.  

I love the Omaha Jewish community.  I have dedicated the last ten years of my life to helping strengthen this community, and I believe that this wonderful community has great potential.  But if we are going to ensure the future of our community we need to come back to shul.  

So to meet the needs of our community we are completely revamping our Shabbos morning format and introducing GOOD SHABBOS NEBRASKA!  (check it out at

The pulpit format has had its time.  Today people want a format that talks with them - not at them.  So we are opening up our prime time Shabbos morning slot, and instead of a pulpit - a desk, chairs, and a coffee mug.  Instead of a sermon - an opening monologue.  

And most important instead of the same thing every week - special guests every Shabbos.  Our first guest is going to be America's Rabbi - the one and only - Shmuley Boteach!

Shmuley is the perfect guest for our new initiative.  He is certainly no stranger to the talk show format.  He has been a regular on Oprah and he hosted his own television show -Shalom in the Home - on TLC.  He will definitely make for a great speaker.  

Shmuley is not just coming as a speaker.  Just like on Shalom in the Home Shumley is coming here as a consultant.  He is probably the most creative Rabbi in the world.  Good Shabbos Nebraska is a great concept, but to get it off the ground and change the culture of our community we are going to need the input of someone who know how to create systemic change.  And nobody does that better than Shmuley!

As I write this, Shmuley is sitting with Elie Wiesel and the president of Rwanda running a program in New York City on Genocide that will no doubt inspire tens of thousands of people to take action and try and affect the terrible situation in Syria.  

Shmuley knows how to inspire people to action.  And Omaha's Jewish community needs action!

My modest goal is to see synagogue attendance in Omaha increase to 4% of our Jewish community - a 100% increase - over the next year.  It may not seem like much, but it is a start, and we have to start somewhere.  

So come out every week at 10 am to Beth Israel.  This week Shmuley Boteach, and every subsequent week we are going to have A list guests learning Torah and speaking on contemporary, relevant, and interesting Jewish topics.  Check out the full line up at or like our facebook page for regular updates.

Omaha Jews, come back to shul.  Learn the Torah, learn the needs of the community, and understand the uniqueness and importance of being Jewish so we can pass down a substantive and meaningful tradition to our children.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

My Service on erev Yom Kippur

Two years ago on erev Yom Kippur I had the unfortunate merit to perform the greatest mitzvah of all - the burial of a met mitzvah.  The following is an excerpt from my blog from 2011.
Today I also had a funeral.  I do many funerals unfortunately, but not like this.  The woman who died was born in 1937.  She was institutionalized at the age of 5 years old and remained there for the rest of her life.  Yesterday we received a call from an attorney who was placed in charge of her.  The woman died late Wednesday night.  She had no known relatives.  No friends.  Nobody in the world even knew she was there.  I had never heard of or met this woman before and I found that according to whatever instructions were left by her last family member, I as the Rabbi of beth Israel synagogue was responsible for taking care of her burial.  This was a true met mitzva - the greatest of all mitzvot that a person can do.  The Talmud says that if the high priest is going to do the Yom kippur service on the holiest day of the year and  the opportunity arises where he has to perform a burial for a met mitzvah he is supposed to abandon the Yom Kippur service and take care of the met mitzvah.  It is the most important of all mitzvot. 
To bury a met mitzvah is a great mitzvah, but one that you hope you never have to perform.  2011 was my first and last time - until now.

By some incredible coincidence, today I received a call regarding a Jewish man who passed away in his home and has no friends or relatives to speak of.  The funeral will take place tomorrow, erev Yom Kippur, at 3:00 pm at Golden Hill cemetery in Omaha and as of now I think I will be the only person at the funeral.

Tomorrow is a big day for any Rabbi.  I have sermons to finish writing, and unfortunately our great chazzan Ari Dembitzer could not join us for Yom Kippur, so in addition, I will have to prepare the davening as well.

So I can't help feeling like the proverbial Kohein Gadol going to do the avodah and encountering the met mitzvah - again.

But there is another ceremony performed by the Kohein that also comes to mind.  The kohein was involved in the ceremony mentioned in parshat shoftim called the eglah arufah.

If a corpse was found murdered in a field in Israel and the murderer was unknown the elders and the kohanim of the closest city would come out to the scene of the crime and perform a ceremony where they would declare - yadeinu lo shofchu et hadam hazeh - our hands did not spill this blood.
Rashi asks, who would think that the elders and the kohanim had anything to do with the murder?
He answers that if a person passes through a town, the leaders are responsible for that persons well being.  If something happens it was probably because they did not take care of him properly.

A Jewish man in my community died and he did not have a friend in the world.  We are not such a large Jewish community.  How did that happen?  As a Rabbi do I bare some of that responsibility?  Could I have reached out to this man while he was alive?  Are there other people who I could be reaching out to?  Is our community doing all it can for its members?

I don't know.

What I do know is that this is the second time that this happened and both times it happened on erev yom kippur.  I am generally not a superstitious person, but this coincidence has given me much to think about going into the day of judgement.

Yom Kippur is the day where all the Jews come out and go to synagogue.  I urge everyone, look around you this year.  If you see someone who does not look familiar, say hello and introduce yourself.  Maybe there are lonely people who could benefit from coming to shul regularly if only someone would give them a kind word.
I wish everyone a meaningful fast and may Hashem answer all of our prayers.
Next year in Jerusalem.