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Justice champion Samuel Walker calls It as he sees it

May 30, 2014 2 comments

UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article.  As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out.  My choices may not be what another writer would choose.  That’s the way it goes.  What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present.  That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father.  My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.

 

 

 

Samuel Walker

Samuel Walker

 

Justice Champion Samuel Walker calls it as he sees it

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the New Horizons

 

And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.

He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.

“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”

As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.

The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.

“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.

All to no avail.

“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”

After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.

Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.

He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.

 

 

Counter notes
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.

“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”

His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.

“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.

“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”

Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.

As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.

“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”

He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.

As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.

“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”

Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.

“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”

Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.

“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”

In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.

More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.

“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.

“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”

[© Ellen Lake]

Photo caption:

Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.

 

Mississippi burning

He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.

“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”

Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.

“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”

Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.

Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.

“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”

He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”

Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.

“The training was very intense.”

He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.

“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”

In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.

“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”

Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.

The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.

Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.

“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.

“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”

While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.

“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”

Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.

Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.

“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”

The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”

The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.

Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”

The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.

As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.

“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”

 

One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy

 

Police watchdog
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.

His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.

“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”

Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.

By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.

“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”

Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.

“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.

He says policing’s come a long way.

“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.'”

Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.

“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”

In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”

In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”

He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.

“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”

He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.

 

 

He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”

(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)

He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”

In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”

At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.

“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.'”

He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.

“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”

He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.

 

 

 

His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”

He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”

He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”

He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”

His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.

With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.

He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.

Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.

As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.

 

Temple Israel Omaha embraces new home and new era

May 26, 2014 2 comments

For the fall 2013 dedication of its new synagogue building, Temple Israel Omaha commissioned Omaha Publications to create a commemorative, magazine-style program.  I was asked to write four stories for that piece that reflect different dimensions of what that new space means to the leadership and liturgy and how it fits into the emerging Tri-Faith Initiative campus that will eventually find the synagogue joined by a neighborhing Islamic mosque, Episcopal church, and shared interfaith center.  My stories follow.

Temple Clergy Work as Religious Artists to Help Members Grow in Their Jewishness

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel is known to frankly speak his mind and fearlessly wade into trouble rather than stand silently, idly by. It’s his nature. He and the dynamic clergy team he leads make a good match for the lively reform congregation they serve.

“I refuse to sit on the fence in any relationship I encounter,” says Azriel. “I like to be part of life and to jump into dangerous, sometimes stormy waters. I definitely want to take a chance. I like those kinds of experiments.”

Temple Israel’s participation in the Tri-Faith Initiative and decision to build a new synagogue are just the latest expressions of Azriel and his team leading their flock to challenging new opportunities.

“There is definitely a spirit in this congregation that allows for those kinds of things to happen. This congregation is extremely courageous,” he says.

He feels fortunate havling clergy who enjoy the vital push and pull that characterizes life at Temple Israel.

“I’m very proud of the clergy surrounding me. They’re an amazing fit,” he says, referring to Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We’re not being a spectator. We’re about getting in, getting muddy, getting hurt, getting in all those amazing places and finding strong, creative ways of entering into people’s lives and relationships.”

“Aryeh, Josh and Wendy all bring different gifts to Temple. They complement and supplement each other and are very different from each other, but that is one of our congregation’s greatest strengths,” says member Jane Rips.

Brown says Azriel sets the bold course. “He does not like to sit still or slow down or sort of rest on any laurels. It’s always what needs to change next or what do we move towards next.”

Like their predecessors, Brown and Shermet speak their mind and think outside the box. Azriel wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve selected some people that have provided challenges to me individually but also to the congregation. Free thinkers and innovators with the courage of their convictions.”

“We all challenge each other with no compunction about telling each other we’re wrong,” says Shermet.

There are no bruised egos.

Azriel says, “We are professionals and we have great respect for each other and I think the congregation definitely sees the loyalty between us. Trust and loyalty have to be at the core of not only staff but the congregation. It’s about knowing there is this group of people that can come together and dream together and challenge each other and have a vision and purpose and meaning to what we’re doing.”

The clergy team meets Tuesday mornings to plan their week but the trio confab informally most every day.

“I can’t tell you how many times during the day we are in each other’s offices because there are things that have to be discussed and some of them are urgent,” says Azriel.

The team divides hospital and nursing home visits. They take turns officiating at life cycle events.

“The clergy does not isolate itself. The acts of reaching out, teaching others about Judaism, welcoming questions and attending community events are part of their daily to-do lists,” says member Phyllis Glazer.

Brown works closely with new education director Debbie Messarano and confers with young families and other congregants without strong connections to clergy. Shermet manages the bamitzvah program and all of the worship music. Azriel ensures the team’s teachings and activities enhance Temple’s mission and vision.

“It’s not only listening to each other,” Azriel adds, “but listening to the heartbeat of the congregation is crucial, too. If we for a moment forget what the purpose of our work here is then our work will be in vain.”

The clergy are part of a much larger team.

“It’s more than just the clergy,” Azriel says. “You have to have the right youth group director, the right educator, the right executive director, the right program director, the right office staff, the right lay leadership.”

Still, as the father of this congregation for 25 years Azriel has left a huge imprint.

Rips says, “He has challenged us, guided us, loved us and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel.”

“I find this place extremely caring and invigorating,” says Azriel. “It has embraced my family. It has been a wonderful experience.”

 

azriel web

brown web

 

 

 

 

 

cantor web

 

 

 

Making Judaism Relevant in Prayer-Life Cycle Rituals

©by Leo Adam Biga

Making Reform Judaism relevant to congregants is not an academic question for Temple’s clergy.

“It’s the central question of our work here,” says Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We spend a great deal of time talking about how are we and are we in fact relevant to people with very busy secular lives.”

Much focus is on making holiday observances and life cycle events intrinsic experiences that help members identify with Jewish life and what it means to be a Jew.

“It’s on so many levels, definitely on the intellectual level so they know what Reform Judaism stands for,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel. ‘It’s also important to recognize that Reform Judaism of 50 years ago is not the same Reform Judaism of today.

“With every life cycle event there is this question of how do we make it an integral part of the life of that family or that individual.”

Infusing new life into old rituals is one way of keeping things fresh.

Azriel says, “Many times we work on traditional vessels that maybe go back to antiquity and try to fill those old vessels with new meaning. That’s the reform tradition. So there is a tradition of immersion in the mikvah but we took this old vessel and brought a new meaning to people battling cancer and addiction and all those things.

“This is where the clergy get creative. We are constantly very vigilant about understanding the content and the meaning of the moment. That’s why we call ourselves religious artists. We talk about the drama we need to have in a ritual or celebration of a life cycle event. The moment we lose sight of the drama then we are not doing our job.”

In that creative process, he says, “we have upgraded everything, not only rituals, not only the celebration of holidays, but in line with the mission of looking at how we can make a better connection between the personal worshiper sitting in the pew and the experience of their relationship with God. Their spirituality. If we do not upgrade it in the way our people are worshiping they will not stay here.”

Member Phyliis Glazer says, “Rabbi Azriel, Rabbi Brown, Cantor Shermet and all who came before them have been with us at some of our most joyous moments. They have shared in those joys and helped us bear the burdens of the times of our greatest sorrow.”

Rabbi Josh Brown says the more members connect their lives to Temple the more opportunities they have to connect with their Jewishness. He says whenever members choose to participate in a celebration or ritual, it’s an opportunity to grow in their Jewish heritage and faith and to be part of a continuum.

“You’re connecting yourself not only to traditions that are generations, in some cases hundreds or thousands of years old, but you’re also connecting yourself to the future – to prayers your kids will say. There’s power in that connection.”

One of those traditions, Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, encourages believers to look inward in order to grow in faith.

“Shabbat is this ability to disengage from the week that just passed and to reenergize the holy inside us for the week ahead,” says Azriel. “Shabbat offers an opportunity to go a few notches up in the spiritual-emotional content of our lives and we can do it in the midst of family and friends or in a walk or opening a book or listening to music or coming here for a Shabbat service.”

Azriel says living out Judasim must be a daily thing.

“Judaism calls us to imitate God’s creation, compassion, caring every day. The high holidays are coming now and I think there are missed opportunities if we don’t use those days and those moments to discover who we are. Those are all places for individual fueling. The whole year is an invitation to learn to fuel and to fly high.”

As Temple Israel settles into its new home, Azriel reminds the congregation that “important as it is to build synagogues for Jews it is even more important to build Jews for the synagogues. Synagogues are empty only when Jews are empty.”

The building will fill with memories, emotions and stories with each ritual and celebration held there. On Sept. 28 Stacie Spies-Matz and Jay Matz have the honor and privilege of their daughter Samantha Matz being the first Bat Mitzvah in the new Temple.

“It is exciting and joyful to take those first steps into the future and into the new building,” says Spies-Matz. “We have observed many holidays, participated in religious school, developed great friendships and had our children’s baby naming at Temple. Temple contributes a big piece to how we raise our children.”

 

 

 

 

Art and Music in New Temple Reflect Spirit of Congregation

©by Leo Adam Biga

To enhance worship in the sacred spaces of its new synagogue, Temple charged five artists with creating symbolically-rich ritual objects embedded in Jewish faith and practice. Each artist met extensively with Temple clergy to discuss the religious significance of the ritual object they were commissioned to make.

An exhaustive process determined where art would be located and what it would convey before a jury identified and commissioned the appropriate artists to create the pieces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts facilitated the process.

The idea was to make art integral to spaces, not mere adornments.

The central ritual object on the bimah (the altar or sanctuary) is the Ark (Aron Hakodesh), which is the repository of the Torah scrolls. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.

At Temple’s request Israel resident Galya Rosenfeld created a doubled-layered ark curtain. Bemis Community Arts Program Manager Holly Olson describes it this way, “The front layer is an assemblage of laser-cut fabric pieced together in a repeating Star of David pattern using a color palette referencing Shivat Haminim (the Seven Species named in the Torah). Openings in the center front reveal the back shear curtain printed with holiday symbols.”

Rosenfeld says the two curtains create an “interplay” and “choreography” for displaying the ark. She adds that the colors inspired by “the ritual foods we eat and wines we drink” are meant “to connect people with familiar things from their experience of the holidays” and to “exalt our practice of Judaism.”

Another essential element of the sanctuary is the eternal light that symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Temple selected James Woodfill of Kansas City, Mo. to design the eternal light for the sanctuary. His modular work seamlessly blends into the bimah wall. He says the design “lets the light simply emanate from that wall” as an ambient architectural immersion. Rather than imposing a narrative, Olson says the piece “allows for the symbolism to come from the experience.”

Woodfill says he intends for his piece to “instigate a new way of feeling or sensing” for worshipers and “to add a layer of potential optimism and reflection.”

The Temple’s chapel also has an eternal light and another Kansas City artist, Linda Lighton, was inspired by a word cloud congregants generated to express what they wanted the chapel’s eternal light to evoke. Working from that and motifs in the ark doors and stained glass windows she fashioned a translucent porcelain flower. She says, “I hope the members will enjoy and find comfort and solace and inspiration in this light for many years to come.”

In the spirit of Jewish prayer that inspires and instructs worshipers artist Lynne Avadenka of Huntington Woods, Mich. was tasked with bringing Hebrew passages from the Hashkiveinu prayer of peace to graphic life. She executed hand-drawn interpretations of excerpts selected by the worship committee. The prayer’s message of renewal, peace and community holds special meaning for the congregation. Her work is displayed in the wrap-around clerestory windows. A repeated passage – “Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise up, our Guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace.” – can be read inside the sanctuary. Two other passages can be read from the outside, including one that reads: “For You, God, watch over us and deliver us. For You, God, are gracious and merciful.”

Olson says the soft flow of Avadenka’s hand-drawn work offers a pleasing contrast to the clean, sharp lines of the space’s other designs.

“The commission for the Temple comes with a sense of responsibility to make sure what I am doing is satisfying the members of the Temple and their sense of what their sanctuary should be, along with the aesthetic sensibility of the architect,” says Avadenka.

Nashville, Tenn.-based artist Mel Ziegler is preparing an outdoor sculptural piece for the entrance that will invite members and visitors to interact with the work and perhaps add onto it. He’s responding to a Hebrew passage viewable above the entrance that reads, “Guard our going and coming, to life and to peace, evermore.” Ziegler envisions his work integrated into new traditions at Temple and reflecting the congregation moving forward and embarking on a new path.

In one way or another the work of Ziegler and his fellow artists all express the vital, searching, engaging nature of Temple’s people.

Temple member Todd Simon, a noted art collector who helped lead the commission process, says “the progressiveness, inclusiveness and open-mindedness” of the congregation ensured that Temple didn’t “go with the safest choices but instead was willing to explore and push around the boundaries.” is pleased by the art that’s been cultivated. I think we’ve got a terrific balance between totally new art and artists for whom the artistic problem this presented to them was a brand new challenge to them.”

“I love those pieces,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, who consulted with each artist. “I feel very good about the selection.”

 

curtain web

Ark curtain

 

 

eternal light sanctuary web

Eternal light

 

hebrew windows web

Hebrew passage inscribed windows

 

stained glass web

Stained glass windows

 

On Simon’s recommendation the synagogue hired the Bemis Center to manage the process that selected and supported the artists.

“I sort of inserted my point of view that we ought to really be thinking about art from the very beginning and more importantly that the art is actually a great way to involve a broader group of the congregation in a conversation about what this place is supposed to be about. The process was designed so that the concepts really came from the community the art is supposed to serve. We tried to be as inclusive as we could.”

Between 80 and 100 congregants attended a 2011 workshop. “We asked the congregation to bring to life in words and stories the past present and future of Temple Israel. What it meant to them on a very personal level,” says Simon. “We noticed certain themes and ideas emerged. We knew where we wanted art to potentially touch the building.” The Bemis then assembled a jury of curators and experts who came up with the artists invited to submit an RFQ (Request for Qualifications). From dozens of submissions five were selected.

In addition to the art pieces Temple commissioned original music for the dedication by three composers.

Jonathan Comisar, music director at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY and on the faculty of his alma mater, Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music, writes Jewish music for synagogues and other organizations all over the nation. Comisar was asked by Temple Israel Cantor Wendy Shermet to compose a piece of art music that draws on the Hashkiveinu prayer. His piece, “Hashkiveinu: A Shelter of Peace,” is scored for cantor and choir as well as for violin, cello, clarinet and flute.

“It was a wonderful, challenging task,” says Comisar.

The composer says his goal was to interpret the prayer with “integrity and authenticity – to make this not only fitting for a prayer but fitting for the grandeur of a new synagogue.” At the same time he says he needed to create a section children can sing along to and weave the instruments and cantor’s voice into “an organic whole. “It’s like a mini-scene from a play in a lovely and beautiful way with all the right intentions. It’s a moment which marks a milestone in the congregation’s life, so I was very mindful of the significance…”

Guest artists for the performance will feature Comisar at piano and select Omaha Symphony members.

The other original musical works for the dedication are by organist-composer Kurt Knecht from Lincoln, Neb. and songwriter-playwright Karen Sokolof Javitch from Omaha. He is music director at St. Mark’s on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus and artistic director and conductor of the Lincoln Lutheran Choir. She is a member of Temple Israel. Knecht’s piece, “Shalom Aleichem,” is for girls and women. Javitch’s piece, “Noah,” is for children.

 

Tri-Faith Initiative campus rendering

 

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Sterling Ridge Site Offers New Horizons to Carry on Old Traditions and to Build New Relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

Temple Israel and the Tri-Faith Initiative grounds comprise a lovely but small corner of the 153-acre mixed-use Sterling Ridge development that’s 10 to 12 years from full build-out. Temple and its interfaith partners bring deep currents of history, memory and spirituality that stand apart from the development’s retail and business tenants.

Temple alone carries 142 years of traditions. Congregants will soon be neighbors with members of a mosque and a church and their own long faith traditions as well as with residents of an assisted living-memory care facility and with employees and customers of various commercial enterprises. All of it affords opportunities to put faith in action.

“It’s meaningful to have participated in the creation of a vehicle that can enable the fostering of more healthy human interpersonal relationships,” says Tri-Faith board chair and Temple member Bob Freeman. “Personally I can tell you I’m a better person and Jew for the journey. I’m more connected to God.”

There wouldn’t be a new Temple in the Tri-Faith venture without the building project leadership team.

Temple member Ted Zetzman is a builder by trade. He and John Waldbaum worked closely with Finegold Alexander Associates, Charles Vrana and Son Construction Company and Lockwood Development’s Chip James on delivery of the new synagogue.

“What made it have special meaning is that Temple came to me and said we need your help with this and it was something I really knew how to do and could help with,” says Zetzman.

He credits principal architect Maurice Finegold with conceiving the new Temple as a translucent lantern on the prairie. Project Advocates helped find the glass to realize that vision, along with the exterior Jerusalem stone and other materials.

Zetzman says fellow Temple member Harley Schrager, chair of the Building Council and co-chair of the capital and major donor campaigns, “was involved intimately in the concept and setting the standards or objectives for the design from a qualitative standpoint.”

Bound up in coming to the new building is honoring the old building’s rich past.

“The idea is to create an incredible opportunity to elevate people side by side, the new and the old, the inspirations and the challenges,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel says. “How do you move the congregation? How do you provide the dignity? How do you recognize the departure, the sadness, the up, the down?”

He says Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet “were involved in making sure people were engaged in conversations with the congregation about what exactly would happen with this transition.”

Temple long deliberated whether to move and once the decision was made it next had to decide where to relocate.

“It’s a huge risk this congregation took,” says Azriel. “I mean, how do you build something that satisfies everyone? How do you build a home for 800 families?”

Zetzman says the Temple project and Tri-Faith presence make a great fit for Sterling Ridge by giving it the high profile civic use it needed.

Azriel sees as providential and ironic Temple and Tri-Faith finding the spot of a former Jewish country club that formed in response to Jews being excluded elsewhere.

“I think the choice of the location for the synagogue is an amazing miracle. We went through 32 different locations before we got to this one, and we came to the right place. Once upon a time Jews were The Other but the Jewish community has grown up and been made to feel comfortable in America. So I think we landed in a wonderful moment in the life of a community. We created a location that responds beautifully to the needs of people both in creating connection and meaning with non-Jews and creating a comfortable haven to be able to celebrate rituals and the excitement of being neighbors.”

Brown imagines Temple serving a similar function Highland Country Club served.

“Jews wanted a place where they could sit down and be with the people they cared about and related to best and I think a lot of the design of our new building is to that same purpose. We want people to feel the synagogue is an extension of their home. We want to be a place where people will feel they’ll run into people they know.

“Just as Highland became a place where you could be fully yourself I hope Temple’s the same way.”

Azriel says the new site is the best opportunity to ensure the growth of Reform Judaism in Omaha with the building’s many sacred spaces and expanded social, educational and administrative facilities. The majority of members reside nearby, too.

Then there’s the interfaith engagement.

Azriel says, “The dream is to discover the image of God in all of us and to see how that image is actually the same. It’s not about symbols, it’s about being neighbors. We’re going to hopefully understand what is the meaning of walking into each other’s homes.

“It’s about interacting and placing ourselves together in our daily living. The reason why we went for this is because we wanted to feel real and authentic. The social justice piece is part of Reform Judaism. That’s part of the obligation of every Jew. It’s about constantly reinventing ourselves in areas of social justice and adult learning. That’s why in the new building we carry on the tradition of leaving a brick unfinished because there’s always work to be done. The dream is turning the bricks and mortar of that building into a living entity.”

The way Azriel sees it Temple’s participation in the Tri-Faith is “an outcome” of its longstanding inclusivity.

“I’m extremely happy about the relationship this congregation has with the non-Jewish community. I continued the tradition of rabbis who came before me in making sure solid bridges are built with those communities. This congregation has never been isolated. There was always a desire on my part and on the part of the congregation to continue those relationships.”

He’s thrilled about this new chapter in Temple’s story but he says “it’s never been about the building,” rather “It is about opening empty spaces and helping people become the best people they can be. There will be opportunities that lead people to something deeper. I think we are here as a community to explore the potential that’s available. The journey will be exciting.”

 

 
 
 
 

Considering Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

May 24, 2014 1 comment

Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.  The essay sets up or introduces the multiple stories I wrote about his most recent film Nebraska.  My extensive Nebraska coverage will add a major chunk of material to my Payne book and to our understanding of him and his work.  The new edition is now available (see details below).

 

 

Considering Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.

Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.

I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.

Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).

Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.

 

 

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Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically with Nebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidt just as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.

That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.

This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.

When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.

For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.

As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations in Nebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.

The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciated Nebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.

Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.

It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.

The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.

Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.

Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.

What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.

Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal

Couple gives plumbing a sexy new turn

May 23, 2014 1 comment

Big Birge Plumbing in Omaha proves anything can be made sexy, even that grimy blue collar labor dedicated to cleaning clogged drains, sewers, pipes, and valves and keeping sinks, baths, toilets, washers, water heaters, and the like working right.  The couple behind the company, Brad and Lallenia Birge, are having a lot of fun with a marketing campaign that plays off their good looks and a whole 1950s-era theme riffing Hollywood movie, television sitcoms, pinups, and  pulp novels.  It’s one part naughty and two parts nice and all around cleverly executed.  Read and see for yourself in my Omaha B2B Magazine story below.

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 Brad Wrench transparent

Couple gives plumbing a sexy new turn

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha B2B Magazine
Plumbing has never looked like this.

An Omaha couple is turning heads with online teasers for their Big Birge Plumbing Company and gaining new customers in the process. Brad and Lallenia Birge lend their killer smiles and buff, model good looks to Pop Art-style ads that emphasize primary colors, tongue-in-cheek graphics and sex appeal dynamics.

The company logo features an illustration of Brad’s flexed arm, adorned in a rolled up red and black flannel shirt to expose a bulging bicep. His burly hand grips a red wrench. In a profile pose they stand back to back. He’s dressed in the iconic working man’s garb of THAT shirt, blue jeans and work boots, an oversized wrench dangling from one hand. Lallenia’s attired in a blouse, shorts and heels as she holds a plunger. In some shots she wears a red and white polka dot dress and in others a tight fitting white sweater with a blue or red skirt. In still more poses she clutches a giant wrench or a frying pan in an oven-gloved hand. Her expressions range from mock distress to amour.

Lallenia Wrench transparent

In these fanciful turns he’s the strong, dependable man and she’s the woman in need of rescue. The retro campaign echoes vintage television situation comedies, Technicolor romantic movies, comic strips, pulp novels and pinup glossies. It’s Betty Page exotica meets Doris Day-Rock Hudson fantasy meets Li’l Abner-Daisy Mae shtick.

Completing this throwback homage is the tagline: “Honesty, quality, American craftsmanship. Old-fashioned values reborn.” The alter-ego personas are exaggerations of the couple’s real selves but the expressed values are how they live and do business.

“We take it very seriously,” says Brad. “We stay true to what we say we are. I can’t stand bad service. The way you treat somebody is everything. It’s totally how you present yourself. On any job I do I try to make it a positive experience for clients.

“We do have a lot of repeat customers and there’s a reason why – we treat people right. We give people good a price and good service. Our clients become our friends.”

He’s a master licensed plumber with years in the trades. She’s a personal fitness trainer who’s opted to devote more time to their son Wyatt and to the business. Her entrepreneurial skills have proven invaluable. She conceives the marketing herself and executes it with help from his mother and photographer Justin Barnes.

 

 

“She’s turned out to be a really big part of the company,” Brad says of Lallenia. “Without her backing me and giving me feedback and throwing ideas out and putting it into play the business wouldn’t be where it is today. As far as our image, it’s all her.”

Lallenia, who enjoys finding frilly props and playing adult dress-up, says it’s all about finding creative ways to make Big Birge stand out.

“When you see other plumbing ads it’s all guys. I was like, ‘We need a woman’s touch here.’ It’s just fun for us to do our own thing right now and to be ourselves. People think we shell out big bucks for our marketing, but we don’t. As long as we can do it ourselves, we’re going to continue doing it.”

The couple says their business website, bigbirgeplumbing.com, garners high traffic and positive feedback. The same is true for their Facebook page and for YouTube videos they’ve made. Their eye-catching promos extend to T-shirts, yard signs and company vehicles.

Coming soon is Lallenia’s own website, “The Plumber’s Wife.”

“It’s about wives helping their husbands as entrepreneurs,” she says. “I am a plumber’s wife and I’m darn proud of it. I want to keep us strong.”

Call Big Birge for an appointment at 402-575-0102.

 

PlayFest broadens theater possibilities: Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works

May 23, 2014 1 comment

Much of theater is elitist without even intending to be.  It’s just the nature of what happens when art, academics, and economics collide.  There are of course counter strains to the theater of exclusion.  The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is an interesting study of something that started out as a kind of closed set endeavor hanging on the threads of the  New York City stage establishment but that has made a concerted effort in recent years to break out of its box to be more cutting-edge, community-based, and inclusive.  My story here for The Reader (www.thereader.com) details how the conference’s PlayFest series is leading the way to make theater more engaging and accessible while at the same time more experimental, including site-specific works that draw on multiple genres and that feature work and in some cases collaborations by artists from Omaha and New York that speak to events and concerns in this community.  In keeping with this more communal, democratic spirit of theater, PlayFest events are free and open to the public.  This year’s events are at Kaneko May 27, the Malcolm X Center May 28 and the historic Florence Mill on May 30.  A highlight will be readings by 2014 conference featured playwright Kia Corthron at the May 28 Voices at the Center program at the Malcolm X Center.  That program is a continuation of the Neighborhood Tapestries series the GPTC inaugurated a couple years ago to bring theater into the communtiy or more specifically into neighborhoods.

 

 

 

 

 

PlayFest broadens theater possibilities
Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The Great Plains Theatre Conference continues stretching beyond its hidebound beginnings by assuming an ever freer, more engaging public model. Where it was once top-heavy with crusty old lions of the conventional New York City stage, it’s now embracing more contemporary, cutting-edge, community-based artists. Where it often played like an exclusive party or lab for the drama circle set, it’s now a more inviting, inventive forum for artists and audiences alike.

GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler, who’s acutely aware of theater’s challenge capturing audiences, has made the conference more accessible through PlayFest series offerings that take theater outside the box. Lawler entrusts PlayFest to artists from Omaha and New York, where he’s worked as a director, to create site-specific, free-form, multi-genre works that break barriers and embrace community.

“Theatre in the U.S. stagnated heavily in the last century with ticket prices climbing ever higher and content being generated by an overwhelmingly white, male, privileged, linear storytelling, playwright-director based system driven mainly by capitalist economics rather than community enrichment,” he says. “The idea behind PlayFest is to move theater out of the established ‘temples of art’ by experimenting with content, form, means of production and dissemination.

“On top of the spirit of experimentation and exploration we make a special effort to create a Neighborhood Tapestries project performance each year from the stories and history of our own community members. All these aspects combined with the fact PlayFest is free, open to everyone and performed in alternative sites across the city creates a wonderful new dynamic for theater in our community.”

 

Kevin Lawler

 

This year’s PlayFest features three distinct events over four days at venues that couldn’t be more different from one another.

On May 27 the artists of Omaha-based aetherplough present We’re Almost There – High Viscosity. This conceptual performance piece will inhabit the wide-open, light-filled second floor at Kaneko, 1111 Jones Street. The piece is directed by Susann Suprenant and Jeanette Plourde. Specifically designed for the show’s cavernous interior, the piece is also informed by the transformation of this former Fairmont Creamery warehouse space into a cultural oasis.

Lawler says he brought the two directors together because “Susann and Jeanette seem like sisters in the realm of creativity and thought,” adding, “With their heavy background of performance based in movement I knew they would complement each other wonderfully.”

“We both bring an intensity of focus, a trust in collaborative creation and a willingness to explore performance made with-for-in the space and with the body as the impetus, rather than narrative as the impetus. We trust in the ‘meaning-making’ abilities of the audience,” says Suprenant, dean of communications and humanities at Metropolitan Community College.

 

Susann Suprenant

 

“We’re kindred spirits with respect to the creation of performance and the creation of events to share with an audience,” says Plourde, a New York director. “We create performance, we create live events, we work with groups of artists we consider artist-creators. There isn’t a script.

We start with questions and territories of exploration and as directors we guide the exploration with a company to create what ultimately becomes a performance event.”

Each year the conference recognizes a playwright and celebrates their work. During the May 28 Voices at the Center 2014 honored playwright Kia Corthron will read from a selection of her politically charged plays and be joined by local spoken word artists, actors and musicians speaking their own truths. Set outdoors at the Malcolm X Center, 3448 Evans Street, this gathering of raised social consciousness at the birth-site of the slain activist born as Malcolm Little is curated by Omaha Community Playhouse Education Director Denise Chapman.

This Neighborhood Tapestries event will intersect with issues affecting inner city communities like North Omaha’s. The Harlem-based Corthorn will read from her new play Megastasis, which she says is “inspired” by the Michelle Alexander book The New Jim Crow in its look at “how the war on drugs has impacted the black community in such devastating ways.” Chapman will direct an excerpt from her adaptation of ancient Greek theater, Women of Troy, that substitutes modern urban women “left behind” as collateral damage in the war on drugs. TammyRa Jackson, Zedeka Poindexter and Monica Ghali portray the Trojan women.

 

Kia Corthron

 

Corthron, who’s written for television and has authored a novel, will read from at least two more of her plays: Trickle and Sam’s Coming.

She recently won a $150,000 Windham Campbell literary prize.

She says she strives to affect audiences emotinally as a way to engage them and therefore “make them think and maybe reconsider or for the first time consider issues they hadn’t thought about before.” She says as a black woman writing about the black experience whatever she chooses to address in her work is bound to be militant in someone’s eyes. “I feel like if you are part of a community that has been traditionally oppressed as the black community has been that…it’s hard to write anything without it being somewhat political.” In Corthron’s view, wearing one’s hair natural or not, having a light or dark skin tone and using slang or proper English all potentially become tense political-ideological points thrust upon and internalized by blacks.

 

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Denise Chapman

 

When Corthron’s penning a play she says “‘I’m just really conscious of and true to the world of these characters and to the way these characters would speak. That’s sort of my driving force when I’m writing – their language.”

The playwright’s excited to have her characters’ voices mix with those of The Wordsmiths, led by Michelle Troxclair and Felicia Webster, the poets behind Verbal Gumbo at the House of Loom, along with Devel Crisp, Leo Louis II and Nate Scott. Adding to the stew will be hip hop artists Jonny Knogood and Lite Pole. Chapman looks forward to this “battle cry music that speaks truths about what’s going on in the community and offers platforms to start conversations for solutions.” Corthron and her fellow artists will do a talk back following the show.

Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru is creating original mural art for the evening.

On May 30 PlayFest moves to the historic Florence Mill, 9102 North 30th Street., for Wood Music, an immersive event created by the writers, directors and actors of the New York-based St. Fortune Collective. Omaha’s own Electric Chamber Music is composing original music. New Yorker Elena Araoz, is directing. Her husband Justin Townsend is designing the show with the conference’s Design Wing fellows.

Araoz says the 1860-set piece will have the audience walk through the mill to meet characters drawn from its past. That year is when the mill converted from water to steam energy. Around that time Florence lost a contentious bid for the state capitol. It all concludes with an outdoor celebration featuring mill-themed music, dance and secret burlesque.

“We’re trying to give the audience more of an experience than just a play,” says Araoz.

 

Enlarged View

Florence Mill

 

The theatrical party will be a direct through-line to the communal, festive life of the mill today as the home to a farmer’s market, an art gallery and live music performances.

St. Fortune writer Jack Frederick says the event will both “pay homage to and activate the mill’s rich history” and new reuse.

Frederick, Araoz and Co. have tapped mill director Linda Meigs, who led efforts to preserve the site and has made it into an arts-agriculture-history colony, for details about the structure’s Mormon settlement lineage. Brigham Young himself supervised its 1846 construction as a grist mill. After the Mormons abandoned their winter quarters the mill was rebuilt and a grain elevator added.

Each PlayFest event is free and starts at 7:30 p.m. For more details and for a schedule of conference events, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.

 

To code or not to code: New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers

May 23, 2014 2 comments

I am so not a techie.  That doesn’t preclude me from writing an occasional piece about a tech-based venture.  And in that spirit is an Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) story I did on a new bootcamp for aspiring web designers called Omaha Code School and its co-founder, Sumeet Jain, who has taken as its model a similar school in his native Calif. he taught at.  He’s very much a part of a growing young entrepreneurial and creative class in Omaha that’s adding a new dynamism to the scene here.

 

To code or not to code
New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Entrepreneurial techie Sumeet Jain is poised to fill a gap in the metro’s dot com scene through a for-profit startup he founded last fall with his cousin Rahul Gupta. The pair’s Omaha Code School aims to provide aspiring web developers an immersive bootcamp experience and employers entry-level-capable programmers.

The Calif. natives are partners in their own web development company, Big Wheel Brigade. Gupta rode the dot com wave before coming to Omaha and at his urging Jain followed suit. Since forming the school Gupta’s moved to San Francisco but Jain’s remained in Omaha to run their new educational endeavor in Midtown Crossing.

Thirteen students began the school’s inaugural “intensive” 12-week course Feb. 24. Jain, the lead instructor, promises the May graduates will leave with a hireable skill set for jobs paying an 80K median salary.

The OCS curriculum structure is based on a bootcamp model popular across the country and one Jain’s familiar with after teaching a web development course for General Assembly on the west coast. He says he was skeptical students could go from novices to job-ready in three months until he helped facilitate that happen. The experience convinced him to try it in Omaha, where he says “a frequent complaint of companies is that there’s not enough talent – not enough developers and not enough qualified developers,” adding, “I thought we should have something like this in Omaha, so I came back, put the pieces together and we launched in November.”

It’s an opportunity for Jain to combine his two loves – web development and teaching. He ensures students are trained in relevant, real world programming languages and techniques most colleges and universities ignore.

Interested students must complete an online application that includes a timed coding challenge. While no prior programming experience is required, students must demonstrate an aptitude for the field, namely logic and problem solving.

“The course is for beginners but this isn’t for hobbyists,” says Jain, a self-taught web developer. “This is a class for people who are looking for a career trajectory change and that comes not just at a cost (tuition is $6,000) but with great personal investment and effort. We want to ensure the highest possible caliber of student.”

Jain says it’s no accident the school’s website and application process emphasizes the intensive curriculum, which features individual and collaborative work on real live projects every day.

“It’s really hard to sit and program for 12 hours a day,” he says. “It’s just mentally draining. Keeping that pace up for 12 weeks is a sprint students need to get through. We do our part to hedge against that weariness by holding events that let them let loose and bond and have a break.”

There are field trips to tech-based local companies and guest speakers presenting on special topics. OCS holds a job fair staffed by representatives from companies in its Supporting Employers program.

“We want our students when they graduate to have connections,” Jain says. “Such a big part of any industry is to know people.”

A mentorship program makes area experts available.

“Another commonly cited problem in Omaha is a diffracted membership model,” he says. “If somebody wants to get help there’s no single great place for them to go or no list of people to consult. We’re really excited our mentorship program will create a conduit for people to get help.”

Mentors range from non-tech to tech-savvy wonks. A yoga instructor conducts twice-weekly sessions to help students de-stress and find balance. A corporate recruiter offers job search insights. Web designers school students in collaboration. Software developers troubleshoot problems students confront writing programs.

Jain’s encouraged by the supporting companies on board and he’s proud that membership fees go toward scholarships for underrepresented minorities in what is a white male-dominated field. Each of the three women in the course received a $2,500 scholarship.

He’s also satisfied by the buzz the school’s produced.

“Support has come in a variety of different ways, most fundamentally in the form of curiosity. People want to know about us, they want to know what we’re teaching, they want to know when our next class will be offered (late summer). The interest is there, we won’t have any trouble filling our second class. I’m very confident about that.”

Jain says he’s also confident that “within six months to a year every one of our students who wants a job should be able to get one. That’s going to speak volumes because these students all took a risk on me.
If our students aren’t succeeding there’s really no reason for somebody to trust us again.”

Follow the bootcamp at omahacodeschool.com.

 

 

Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as social progressive and interfaith champion secure

May 15, 2014 1 comment

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha has been sowing seeds of social justice for a very long time.  My short piece about him for Omaha Magazine comes a few months after he oversaw his reform congregation’s move to a new synagogue building.  The new temple is the first structure on the campus of the TriFaith Initiative, on whose board he serves. When the campus is completed it will be home to the synagogue, a mosque, an Episcopal church, and a tri-faith center.  He’s justifiably proud of how his faithful came together to support and shepherd their part of the tri-faith project through to completion, marking a new chapter in the historic congregation’s life.  He’s excited to fill the new temple with the emotion and energy of all the dynamic services, classes, celebrations, and rituals that go on there.  He’s served the congregation many years and now that he’s announced he’ll be retiring in 2016 he wants to make sure his leadership continues steering a right course until he steps down and a new leader takes over.

 

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Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as social progressive and interfaith champion secure

©Story by 

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has led Omaha’s reform Jewish congregation, Temple Israel Synagogue, since 1988. Along the way he’s become known for his social justice advocacy and for his efforts building bridges to other faith communities. He’s a board member of the ground-breaking Tri-Faith Initiative that’s bringing the three Abrahamic traditions together on the same campus. Temple Israel represents the Jewish tradition in the endeavor.

After putting his liberal stamp on Omaha, Azriel has signed his last three-year contact. His retirement takes effect in June 2016. This good shepherd wants the best for his flock and successor. Therefore, after he steps down he and his wife, Elyce, (they’re parents to two adult children) will move to Chicago, where they have strong ties, rather than be a distraction here.

“I want to see the congregation continue to thrive with someone else,” he says, “and sometimes there is a challenge when the emeritus rabbi stays in the same city. It’s important to have a rabbi running this congregation without an emeritus rabbi breathing down their neck. There’s definitely a need for me to not only step aside but to move to another place so the new person, whether male or female, has some independence to do things their own way.”

 

 

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When his time at Temple is done he will leave behind some tangible results, starting with the new synagogue building near 132nd and Pacific that opened last summer in the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The temple is the first completed element of the Tri-Faith campus being developed there. Azriel has been a driving force for his progressive congregation bearing witness to interfaith acceptance and communion. The temple will soon be joined by a neighboring mosque, a Christian church, and an interfaith center.

The contemporary modern, glass-sheathed new home replaced the previous facility at 70th and Cass that the nearly 800-family congregation outgrew years ago. It marked the first time in his career the native of Israel oversaw a new building project.

“It’s really a once in a lifetime experience,” Azriel says. “Many people in the congregation took part in this process.”

After years planning and praying the consensus is the open, Prairie-style structure is a good thing.

“The feedback on the building from the congregation is amazing,” he says. “We created exactly what we needed.”

The building, bathed in natural light from many windows, includes high tech features, but Azriel says it’s rooted in tradition. For example, leading to the main sanctuary are two facing modular walls—one a memorial bearing the names of members who’ve passed away and the other the stained glass windows that adorned the old sanctuary.

 

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“I think it’s extremely important for any institution that serves people to always have a heart for the institutional memory. There must be a place where a new building will not avoid the past or prevent you from remembering it. This congregation was established in 1871, and so even with a new building we still have to have one eye back in the history. We’ve maybe updated the technology but it’s the same Judaism—the same traditions, the same customs.”

What the temple most needed was more space to accommodate folks at services, receptions, classes, and other events and the much larger synagogue accomplishes this. Beyond the greater numbers that can be served the spacious digs provide more opportunities for interaction.

“This is definitely a communal experience,” he says. “It’s a house of study, a house of gathering and a house of prayer. It’s also a community gathering place for Jews and non-Jews. So it’s not just worship, it’s social justice, it’s adult and youth education, it’s making connections to churches in this area. I’m now creating relationships with some of the churches out here and it will be interesting to grow those relationships and to start something new.”

Just as he hoped, a central community square or commons area has become a focal point for people to hang out.

“We are finding that people are actually lingering because the space is so inviting. They want to stay longer and they like the schmoozing.”

Azriel doesn’t worry much about his legacy.

“It’s definitely not about bricks and mortar, it’s about relationships and hopefully about leaving a good name.”

He knows Temple’s contribution to the Tri-Faith campus represents just one part of an unfolding journey in understanding.

“This piece is done but the other pieces are extremely important too. To be able to create that community is another step. Some steps will be done before I leave and some will be done after I leave, and I’ll come back to see them bear fruit.”

For synagogue details, visit http://www.templeisraelomaha.com. Follow Tri-Faith Initiative news at trifaith.org.

 

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