What are two graduates of the Frisch School in Paramus doing in Omaha, Neb.?
Serving as rabbis in the city’s only Orthodox synagogue.
Jonathan Gross, the son of Sandy and David Gross of Teaneck, always wanted to emulate his grandfather, who was the rabbi of a small synagogue in Central Jersey.
"There are enough rabbis in New Jersey. I wanted to go to a place where I could really make a difference," said Gross, who obtained his ordination at the rabbinical seminary of Yeshiva University. While at Yeshiva University, he participated in Torah Tours, a program that sends students to synagogues in small communities for holidays.
"In the summer of ‘001 I came to [Beth Israel Synagogue in] Omaha for a week and I loved it," Gross said in a telephone interview. "They wanted to hire me as youth director, and I said, ‘No thanks, I’ll come back in a few years to be the rabbi.’ I visited five times over the next couple of years."
Some of the congregants even came to his wedding in ‘003 and stayed in touch as he became assistant rabbi at a synagogue in Los Angeles while his bride, Sara, attended medical school there. And then, later that same year, he got a phone call from Beth Israel.
"They said their rabbi had told them the day before that he was leaving, and they offered me the job," said Gross. "The interview was just a formality. I finished the year in L.A. and we came to Omaha in August ‘004."
For Seth Nadel, ‘5 who was a Frisch freshman when Gross was a senior his new position as assistant rabbi at Beth Israel grew out of a July stint filling in at Beth Israel while Gross was vacationing in Israel.
"I ran the show when he was gone," said Nadel, "and the community asked me to come back. We considered other positions but decided to take them up on the offer."
Nadel grew up in Fair Lawn and Passaic; his parents, Richard and Gloria, and his grandmother, Esther Nadel, still live there. He is married to Teaneck native Naama Fogel, and they have two preschool boys.
Nadel, a songwriter/guitarist specializing in original Jewish folk rock (his band’s CD, "Achas Shoalti One Thing I Ask," is sold at Judaica House in Teaneck), started teaching at North Jersey’s supplemental Hebrew high schools and congregational schools while he was still a teenager, and he served as a "rebbe" at Maor, a SINAI Special Needs High School program now housed at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.
He’s brought both his penchant for music and his love of teaching to Omaha. "My band is still based on the East Coast, but I’m meeting some musicians here in Omaha and will play at a caf? here soon," he said.
He and Gross maintain a fully weekly schedule of adult education classes on everything from organ donation to how to keep a kosher kitchen.
"All the people here are very intelligent but most don’t have an extensive Jewish educational background," said Gross. "I have to work a little bit harder preparing classes so the material is not above their heads but still challenging and new." His congregants particularly enjoy studying biblical and philosophical topics, he said.
Nadel described his new home as "a wonderful community with a lot of potential. Beth Israel is an amalgam of several Orthodox shuls from the turn of the century, with a beautiful new building built three years ago. We have more than 100 families and we’re growing."
There are 6,000 Jews in Omaha, served by one Orthodox synagogue, one Conservative, and one Reform, in addition to Chabad Lubavitch.
"The community puts its resources and its focus into supporting all the Jewish institutions to the degree that our federation is in the top 10 federations in the country in terms of per-capita giving," said Nadel. "There’s really the feeling that the sky’s the limit."
Why would Orthodox Jews be drawn to a city where there’s only one Jewish school and one kosher restaurant?
For starters, tuition at the community day school here is just $5,000 and members of Beth Israel get half that amount subsidized through an endowment.
"I believe the wave of the future is that people will have to leave larger cities," said Gross. "Young couples are struggling [financially] in Teaneck. In Omaha, we have the lowest unemployment rate of any city in the country, and the housing market is stable. My mortgage is less on my four-bedroom house than I paid for rent on a two-bedroom apartment in L.A. People will be starting to look for communities like this."
Of course, living in Omaha as an observant Jew is quite different from living that way in North Jersey.
"Orthodoxy is defined a little differently here," said Nadel. "A lot of people drive to shul on Shabbos, and in terms of their observance, only some keep kosher. Not a lot of the people have had a strong Jewish education."
"Being out here, I so appreciate my background from Moriah and Frisch," Gross said. "North Jersey residents should really appreciate the schools and teachers they have. My goal here is to get the day school up to that level."
Last year, Beth Israel won a program initiative grant from the Orthodox Union for its Parents Are Teachers project, which provides a home-based three-year cycle of Jewish lessons and projects for parents to do with their children starting at age ‘.
But there’s also a Jewish nursery program in Omaha, housed in a large Jewish Community Center complex that also accommodates the community school, a ritual bath, and a retirement home, where Gross and Nadel supervise the kosher kitchen.
"My friends here are more diverse than they were in New Jersey or in California," said Gross. "Of my peers in L.A., everyone was observant, while here there are about 10 of us who are observant, but we’re also friends with people our age in the Conservative and Reform communities. In our shul, the generation differences are kind of blurred. I have friends as young as ‘0 and as old as 90."
Nadel gently chides people back home for judging a Jewish community based on its number of kosher restaurants although Omaha does now have a kosher Krispy Kreme shop and a kosher bagel store, as well as a grocery that carries kosher meats and cheeses.
"It’s certainly a nice luxury to be able to eat out, but there are other things that are more important," he said. "People here are very warm. And I have a blast working with Rabbi Gross."
Gross sees no reason for an "out of town" Jewish community to be remote anymore. "My impression is that in the past, smaller communities weren’t hooked into greater Jewish world," he said. "Now, with the ‘flattening’ of the world through technology and telecommunications and travel, I’m trying to get us into the global Jewish community. My goal is that nobody should ever again say, ‘There are Jews in Omaha?’"
To find out more about Beth Israel Synagogue, see www.orthodoxomaha.org