Sharei Pruzdor Visit Omaha
Sha’arei Pruzdor Students Discover There Are Jews in Omaha, Nebraska
Mary Sue Grossman, Executive Director, Beth Israel Synagogue, Omaha, Nebraska
On January 18, the students of Sha’arei Pruzdor, a yeshiva high school in Long Island, began a unique adventure, making trek to Omaha, Nebraska and specifically to Beth Israel Synagogue. It is likely the students, teachers and parents felt these 26, 9th grade students were heading to a “third world country” with few amenities and certainly no Jewish life.
Fortunately, they discovered their assumptions were far from reality.
Omaha, with a metro population of over 900,000, boasts a Jewish community of 6,000. There is a mikveh, an eruv, a Jewish day school, a top flight Jewish nursing home, a weekly Jewish newspaper, a Jewish funeral home, and a Jewish Community Center. The Bagel Bin provides kosher New York style bagels plus a variety of dine-in meals. Much to the delight of the visitors, local Krispy Kreme locations are also kosher. The weekly kosher deli at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home is the “place to be” for Friday lunch. While one won’t find a street with a dozen kosher grocery stores, kosher food is readily available in the city. And based on conversation overheard by two of the students, they found there is also plenty of hot water!
So how did Sha’rei Pruzdor connect with Omaha and Beth Israel Synagogue?
The connection was made through Sha’rei Pruzdor founder and director, Rabbi Elli Merenstein and Rabbi Ari Dembitzer, Beth Israel’s senior rabbi. Friends since childhood, the idea to have a school visit to Omaha began shortly after the school opened this past fall. Conversations continued, the school embarked on a campaign to fund travel expenses, a date was finalized, and plans were underway in both New York and Omaha.
The goal of the visit for Sha’arei Pruzdor was to introduce the students to a Jewish community much different from their own and share their passion for yiddishkeit. Rabbi Ari’s goal for Beth Israel was to introduce congregants and community members to an enthusiastic group of young men with a passion for learning and a zest for all things Jewish.
“Our congregation and many in Omaha’s greater Jewish community has a deep interest in expanding the educational opportunities for youth and adults alike” reports Rabbi Dembitzer. “In welcoming the boys from Sha’arei Pruzdor, I wanted people to experience the mindset of students with a deep commitment to Jewish studies. The best way to learn is to teach. I believe the boys crystalized their learning by needing to shine and represent what they have learned.” Rabbi Dembitzer concluded saying his ultimate goal is for a permanent partnership with Sha’arei Pruzdor with the potential of students attending their junior year in Omaha.
In talking about the experience, Rabbi Merenstein said “As adults, we at times forget just how deep and capable kids are. It was an amazing sight to see ninth grade boys leading a Shabbos full of joy, dialogue and teaching by example the inherent joy of living life as a true Torah Jew.” Smiling, he added “This trip marked the first yeshiva to ever visit Omaha and I am proud to say that the MSP boys did an extraordinary job advertising what a great product the yeshiva system can build. It was a gamble to send ninth graders out into the big world but our belief in their ability to excel, won out.”
Yaakov Jeidel was the visit organizer and coordinator. Yaakov, a native of NYC, moved to Omaha in August with his wife, Faige, and daughter, Lea. Faige, who is pre-med at the University of Nebraska Omaha, is Beth Israel’s youth director. Yaakov, who is employed by a local nursing home, is a very active volunteer working in a wide variety of areas for Beth Israel.
“I have never seen a high school with no cliques or barriers among the boys,” shared Yaakov. “They genuinely felt comfortable expressing their individual and unique talents not just among themselves but also to the community.” He added “It was a pleasure to have them and for someone who grew up in the system, this yeshiva is a breath of fresh air!”
Visitors were hosted by Beth Israel families with a group also staying in an apartment at the synagogue which is used for Shabbat visitors. The feedback from the host families was overwhelmingly positive about their guests.
In addition to multiple learning sessions each day, the group experienced Omaha in a variety of ways. Activities included basketball at the JCC, a visit to a local goat farm, ice skating, an indoor trampoline park, and visiting Omaha’s Old Market area. They led an amazing Kabbalat Shabbat at the nursing home and visited individual residents. During Shabbat dinner attended by 160 people, the boys shared words of Torah and they led services on Shabbat morning. Following a musical havdalah, the boys shared their flair for fun with a talent show. On Sunday morning, they assisted with youth classes. Early Monday morning, the group boarded a plane for Colorado for a few days of skiing before returning to New York.
“It was really great to have the boys with us,” shared Rabbi Shlomo Abramovich, Beth Israel’s visiting scholar. Rabbi Abramovich and his wife Hodaya, who is a religious studies teacher at the day school, were a host family. “They were such fun and very polite and our three boys loved hanging out with them.”
The final evaluation was the weekend was a great success and conversations have already started about next year’s visit.
(Author’s Note: As the synagogue executive director, you can understand when the idea of hosting a visit with 26 yeshiva boys first discussed, my initial reaction was “Oy vey!” I am happy to report my fears were totally unfounded. The boys were a delight, continually expressing their appreciation for everything being done and repeatedly asking how they could help. Perhaps more impressive was their willingness to engage in conversation with staff and congregants at every event. My compliments to the families and Sha’arei Pruzdor for guiding these young men to the pleasant individuals they are today.)
For more information about Sha’arei Pruzdor, please call 516.374.6777. For Beth Israel Synagogue, visit www.orthodoxomaha.org or call (402) 556-6288.