Take a map of North America, find the precise center (give or take half a state), and you will find yourself in the physical center of Orthodox Judaism in the United States: The Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, Nebraska.
Just the very fact that the Rabbi – enthusiastic and giving Ari Dembitzer – was originally its High Holidays cantor tells you what's important to the members of Beth Israel. He first came to the shul 13 years ago to lead its Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services, and continued to return nearly every year, arousing and inspiring the worshipers not only with his love of Torah, but with his musical talents and incredible ruach (spirit). He was ultimately offered the position of Senior Rabbi, and has been leading the congregation ever since.
"The people here are simply very fine," Rabbi Ari says, "a 'nice for no reason' type of people. This is also a very growing community – not only quantitatively, but also in terms of Jewish observance."
One of the very first things he wished to note about his congregation was its connection with Israel: "We have a slogan/song/T-shirt that says: 'If I can't live in Israel, second-best is Omaha.' It has really caught on, even with the Reform and Conservative congregations here. The fact is that there have been a number of new olim from our community, and others are considering it as well."
Omaha is Nebraska's largest city, with some 450,000 people – including 6,000 Jews, according to the local Jewish Federation. The only other Jewish concentration in the state (one Reform congregation, one Conservative) is in the capital city of Lincoln.
Jewish life in Nebraska began back in the 1850's, more than a decade before it even became a state. It took nearly 30 years until the first Orthodox Jews there – immigrants from eastern Europe and Russia – formed the Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol, also known as the Litvsche Shul. This later morphed into what ultimately became the largest synagogue in the city, Beth Israel. Now a member of the OU (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations), its website says it "strives to perpetuate the legacy of Torah Judaism in the modern world and provide a home for those who wish to learn about and observe Halacha, Jewish Law."
Rabbi Dembitzer himself, who lived for several years in Jerusalem and Kfar Adumim, learned originally in Yeshivat Kol Torah in Jerusalem, under the tutelage of the renowned Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. "In recent years, however, I have begun to learn the works of Rav Kook, and I would say that most of my teachings now are drawn from his works."
How did he come to hear of Rav Kook? "Largely via the internet – and especially sites such as your very own Yeshiva.org.il of the Beit El Yeshiva, and Machon Meir. The video classes there, such as those of Rabbi Eli Brin, are invaluable!"
In this connection, he is excited to tell about one of the earliest Rabbis in Omaha: "I was back in Israel recently, and I wanted to send a Torah message back to my congregation. It was the yahrtzeit of one of Rav Kook's renowned students, Rabbi Y. M. Charlap of Yerushalayim, and I chose an idea from one of his books – and then I learned that his own son, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Charlap, was the rabbi right here in Omaha in the early 1920's! He later moved to the Bronx, and his son is the well-known Rabbi Zevulun Charlop of YU."
Activities in Beth Israel are wide, varied, and full of Torah flavor. Every Friday night the services feature Carlebach-style dancing , often with the participation of visitors from the Reform and Conservative congregations, and the Sabbath is escorted out with a musical Havdalah as well. This coming Purim will be marked with a communal Purim meal, and scholars-in-residence are often invited for Shabbat; next on the schedule, for instance, is founder and President of the KeepJerusalem organization Chaim Silberstein.
And how can we not mention Beth Israel's cholent contest that pitted Omaha's eight best cholents in a tense but tasty eight-week competition? After some close calls, the champion was finally crowned in late February when Chubby in the Tummy nosed out Skylent and Ashkephardic.
And of course, Torah study: "Every Thursday," Rabbi Ari says proudly, "we have a day of Torah, with some 50 Jews studying in five different classes. Though we are not the largest synagogue in Omaha, we have the largest Sabbath services, with 80-100 people every week."
Shabbatonim are often held in Beth Israel with country wide youth groups such as NCSY and Kesher – but perhaps most notably, with some 20 graduates of Camp Simcha, a camp for children and teens with cancer and other blood disorders. Camp Simcha is actually run by Rabbi Dembitzer himself, and in line with his activities in this field, he has a great dream: "We are thinking about creating a vocational yeshiva – the first of its kind – for disabled youth, age 18 to 21. It has not gotten off the ground yet, but I think, and hope, that it's an idea whose time has come."
To contact Rabbi Dembitzer: Rabbidembitzer@orthodoxomaha.org