As a rabbi’s wife led a joyous bread-making event prior to the current Jewish High Holy Days, it was a reminder of another happy occasion eight years ago.
Along busy 10th Street outside the Hilton Omaha, a Hasidic couple married under the traditional canopy, a chuppa. As a goat’s horn blew, drivers who must have wondered what was going on honked back.
Many invitees had come from New York, the men all wearing beards and black hats. A Jewish friend of mine observed, “This isn’t something you see every day in Omaha.”
At the reception afterward in a Hilton banquet room — women on one side, men on the other — a New York rabbi playfully announced: “Welcome to the first annual Katzman wedding!”
That drew laughter, but it seemed like a good bet. Rabbi Mendel Katzman and wife Shani, assigned to Omaha in 1986 to “spread the light” of their faith, have raised their 12 children here, and bride Estie was the oldest.
The Katzmans practice their faith from a synagogue at the Chabad House, 120th and Shirley Streets. They also move about the community and beyond.
With nearly 250 attending Sept. 6 at the Hilton, Shani conducted her third annual pre-Rosh Hashana “Challa Bake,” preparing the rich, eggy bread of the Sabbath and holidays.
But the prediction of annual Katzman weddings? There have been no other marriages, though the rabbi sounds hopeful.
“There’s some dating going on,” he said, wearing an apron at the Challa Bake. “That’s about as much as I’m allowed to say.”
Dating, in the Hasidic faith, is far different from the societal norm. It’s not casual, and kissing or even hand-holding is not allowed.
Marriages aren’t exactly arranged, but dates sometimes are. Often parents know of another family with an eligible young adult and a date is set up. Or single folks might arrange their own.
Either way, once there is a date, the two are expected to begin considering each other for marriage.
I’ve met most of the Katzman kids over the years, and they are charming, smart, faith-filled and attractive. Shani home-schooled them, and in some cases they traveled to other cities for secondary schools or beyond.
Their names are not trendy, but come from a tradition thousands of years old: daughters Estie, Shevi, Mushka, Chani, Rochi, Devorah, Miri and Feigy, and sons Levy, Yossi, Zelig and Zalmen, whose bar mitzvah celebration I attended in 2016.
That same year, when visiting my daughter and her family in Brooklyn, I had lunch with three adult Katzman sisters at their invitation in the Crown Heights neighborhood.
Crown Heights, where Mendel and Shani grew up, is home to the worldwide headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish movement. Along tree-lined Eastern Parkway, men wearing black fedoras are a common sight.
“When you walk into Crown Heights,” Rabbi Katzman said, “you see the external fervor and life. It isn’t just putting together bagel and lox.”
The Katzmans were assigned to Omaha by the movement’s leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994 and whose memory they revere. He was known as “the Rebbe,” and the Katzmans say that in Jewish history, they consider him equal to Moses.
The Chabad mission encourages people to be optimistic and joyous and to think of others first. Chabad provides counseling, crisis intervention and education, and hopes that its chabad.org website is “the go-to for all things Jewish.”
Congregations of Omaha’s longtime Jewish community worship in separate synagogues — Reform (Temple Israel), Conservative (Beth El) and Orthodox (Beth Israel).
The Katzmans and Chabad serve all and recognize no such divisions. Said Shani: “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.”
The couple are known for their good works. Among other things, the rabbi visits jails and prisons, and Shani organizes classes and programs.
“A lot of people regard them highly,” said Gary Javitch of Omaha, “because they fill in the cracks that some people fall into. Mendel is a good guy with a wonderful heart.”
“Shani is very smart, caring and educated, and a wonderful teacher,” said Marty Ricks. “She’s attracted a lot of ladies from the other synagogues to her classes.”
At the recent Challa Bake, attendees prepared the dough, which actually was to be baked when people got home. The event included prayers, singing and “a tribute to Jewish women,” honoring Rhonda Saferstein, Louri Sullivan and Pam Friedlander.
Rosh Hashana, which began at sunset on Sept. 9, is the Jewish new year. Yom Kippur, which begins at nightfall Tuesday and ends Wednesday evening, is the faith’s most solemn time of year, the day of atonement.
The Katzmans came to Omaha 32 years ago as emissaries of the Rebbe, and have put down roots. They are planning a new Chabad House on the current site, and Mendel says ground could be broken in the next year or so.
For Omaha, the very public Hasidic wedding itself was kind of groundbreaking. Now the rabbi and his wife hope they can plan on some of those “annual Katzman weddings.”
Said Rabbi Katzman: “We believe God has a plan, and it doesn’t always work the way we write the script.”