The 2020-2021 series of Beit Midrash took place with robust “Zoom” participation for each session. It concluded with considerable praise from the community for its content, clergy-led discussions, community participation, and the back-end organization to make it all come together. Not unnoticed was the beginning of the rumblings that in this, as in so many other instances a virtual existence, people were getting “Zoomed out.” There was cautious optimism that the 2021-2022 series would once again reap the benefits of in-person participation as the country conquered the culprit of the disruption – COVID-19.
As spring moved to summer and summer moved to fall, it was clear that even with vaccines and adherence to CDC guidelines by many across the land, it was too soon to declare victory and most certainly too soon to hold events with large numbers of people in close proximity. Yet it would be disingenuous to ignore that much progress had been made, and in-person events with limited numbers of people were safely occurring throughout the land. And the Omaha Jewish community had one additional distinct advantage. It had the Weisman Family Reception Room in the Jewish Community Center on the Staenberg Kooper Fellman Campus to hold events. While not designed with COVID in mind, it did offer significant open space with versatility in its configuration. Its state-of-the-art audio and video capabilities had already proven successful for a number of events. The decision to hold “hybrid” sessions – Zoom technology with in-person participation available within health guidelines – was made with confidence that this would be the best method for moving forward. When the time came, the community registered for their Zoom links in robust numbers with some also planning to attend in-person as circumstances allowed. The 2021-2022 Beit Midrash series began on Oct. 6, 2021 with enthusiastic in-person and virtual participation – exactly what was anticipated.
The opening session titled, “Jewish Americans in 2020 – Unpacking the Pew Study Data” was the first of a two panel discussions in which the clergy parsed out some of the study’s results and applied the findings to the Omaha community as a whole and their respective congregations in particular. The Pew Research Center describes itself as “a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the attitudes and trends shaping the world. We conduct public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis, and other data-driven social science research.” Rabbi Deana Berezin, Temple Israel; Rabbi Ari Dembitzer, Beth Israel; Hazzan Michael Krausman, Beth El, and Rabbi Brian Stoller, Temple Israel each offered their reactions and educated analyses as moderator Jennie Gates Beckman helped probe some of the study’s major findings. The study revealed that in today’s world, Jews may be described as culturally engaged, increasingly diverse, politically polarized, worried about antisemitism, and a low level of religious identification. Any one of these findings is worthy of considerable discussion and reason alone for even more participation by the community in what these findings mean. The panel observed, for example, that the diversity and polarization in the Jewish community is reflective of the same throughout the country. The important thing for Jews is the way in which diversity is embraced and polarization is tempered by understanding and embracing differences. The evening’s discussion was robust, insightful, and in the case of the low level of religious identification, disconcerting.
As this article goes to press, the second session on the Pew study will have concluded. There is more to come every Wednesday at 7 p.m., with a few publicized exceptions. With two previous years of Beit Midrash sessions behind them, the clergy of the community have chosen a variety of topics for this year that will stimulate, inform, and most assuredly bring forth differences of opinions. That is what learning of this type is all about. It is community learning, and the more the community participates, the more that can be learned. For those who are yet to register for the series, you may go to the Jewish Federation’s web page, jewishomaha.org, and select the Beit Midrash sliding banner on the upper part of the page, or contact Mark Kirchhoff at email@example.com or 402.334.6463. Prove the Pew study correct by being culturally engaged.