Returning To Our Roots: Visiting Omaha’s Central High School

September 7, 2023
Luiz Gandelman

Miami, Florida, United States

Class of 2024

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From ordering Runza on UberEats during advance week, to scrambling through elevators in a Lorax costume, BBYO’s August Executives Conference was full of amazing memories I will never forget. One of the most powerful ones, however, was when BBYO loaded us all up on buses and took us to Central High School in downtown Omaha. We had spent the week thus far doing leadership training and working towards guiding the movement forward, so it could not be more fitting to unpack our roots. 

As we pulled into Central High, we were all immediately dumbfounded and amused by the sheer grandiose of the school. The halls constituted what appeared to be a maze, with high arches and decorated walls. Along these walls, Central High Spirit and memorabilia were all around, but one stood out. A wall of fame of sorts, featuring many of Central High’s esteemed and determined alumni, including none other than the founder of AZA: Sam Beber. Seeing the halls of the school where those 14 boys were rejected and pushed away from their community, and meeting Jewish students there today was an incredibly powerful experience. We heard from alum and former principal Keith Bigsby, who spoke of Central’s evolution to a welcoming and inclusive environment, a feeling backed up by Omaha’s Jewish Public School Superintendent, Matthew Ray. Another powerful moment was a tour around the school, where two things stuck out: a war memorial and a donor commemoration. Half-jokingly, staff pointed out how many names were of Jewish origin. This drew out reflection: how could Jews give back to a school that was hostile to them? Well, the key word is was. Central is now welcoming to Omaha’s Jews, and it has been for a while. It is also a testament to the Jewish people’s ability to survive through anything, as well as our ability to rise above problems and thrive. 

Another incredibly touching experience was on Central’s football field, where Alephs and BBG’s split up and donned a signature August Execs jersey. We watched as some of BBYO’s top-tier leadership staff took turns to share their own stories with BBYO, with a main emphasis on “rough patches”, something that resonates with me deeply. Watching many of the staff and leaders we look to as BBYO leaders open up and be vulnerable about their BBYO journeys and struggles made me realize we are not alone. Stories ranged from quitting outright to losing motivation, but they all contained one powerful thing: motivation and a drive to succeed in the end. Everyone goes through a tough period, especially in BBYO, and seeing the struggles faced by the boys in Central High shows us we can never give up, and nothing is strong/powerful enough to stop us. As Alephs and BBG’s but also as Jewish teens, we are unstoppable. 

The night ended in a very BBYO fashion, to no one’s surprise. Led by the Grand Aleph Godol, TJ Katz, the rest of the Grand Board of AZA began a round of cheers, including the iconic “Up You Men”, our fellow brother Alephs surrounding us, and our voices and screams filled the air in Omaha. As I looked around, I saw the faces of some of my best friends, people I knew before BBYO, people I met that past week, people from home, and people from far away, but what united us all in one big huddle was our brotherhood under AZA. Only one other thing could be heard: a similar sound coming over from the BBG’s. Our voices clashed, but they honestly also complemented each other. AZA is not AZA without BBG, and BBG is not BBG without AZA. To some, execs was their first time in America. To most, execs was our first time in Omaha. And to all of us, that was our first time wandering the halls of Central High School, where our movement began, and singing songs like “Up you men and sing to AZA, time will pass and we’ll be on our way”. And pass it did. As I sit here, at my desk at home in Miami, Florida, I keep longing for that spirit. I saw TJ Katz last week in his first Godol visit, and in a weekend that passed like a flash, he was on his way. Execs taught me to keep that spirit burning, and cherish every moment in BBYO with passion, as this is my last one, and I am committed to making it my best.

Luiz Gandelman is an Aleph from Miami, Florida and is the 99th Grand Aleph Mazkir.

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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