B'nai B'rith Omaha’s Henry Monsky Lodge calls its signature program “Breadbreakers.” It takes place over lunch during the noon hour. Every Wednesday. It has gone on for over 60 years, at least 49 times a year.
It is a friendship-building, brand-promoting B’nai B’rith educational program, put on primarily, but not exclusively, for the Jewish community. To sustain the program, week in and week out, the Lodge has to get approximately 20 attendees to cover the cost of the buffet lunch. To do that, the Lodge employs the following criteria: recruit the prominent and preeminent, the interesting and influential to tackle a timely topic in a mini-press conference format.
This can be a very challenging task, especially when you have to find 49 people over a year’s time. For the last 14 years, Gary Javitch and co-chair Marty Ricks accepted that challenge, rarely missing the goal and on many occasions going over it. The key to success is, of course, selecting the right guest speaker.
This past week, on Wednesday, March 20, the duo invited Rabbi Mordechai Levin to speak. Rabbi Levin matched the above criteria perfectly.
The rabbi, it seems, just happens to be a personal acquaintance of the new leader of the billion- plus-member Catholic Church, the recently-elected 266th pope.
During his introduction of the rabbi, Javitch noted that the clergyman had been hyped more than any other speaker in the history of Breadbreakers. “Just two days ago,” Javitch said, “our presenter wrote an op-ed piece about the new pope which JTA, a world-wide Jewish wire service, published. Then yesterday, the rabbi’s relationship with the pope was the featured above-the-fold story on the front page of the Omaha World-Herald (in both editions).
Those two articles helped Levin attract a large crowd, drawing nearly 50 people – more than double the average weekly attendance.
“The Buenos Aires-born rabbi distinguished himself as a leader in his home country’s Jewish community,” said Javitch. “He is a past president, a past secretary and a founder of the Latin American region of the Rabbinical Assembly; a past secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Latin America, and he is also a co-founder of the Association of Conservative Congregations in Argentina.”
It was in that context that Rabbi Levin became acquainted with the man, now known to most of the world as “Pope Francis.”
Mixing light humor, insightful information, and utilizing PowerPoint, the rabbi told his story.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Mordechai Levin grew up separately in their country’s capital, but their paths often crossed when one became a rabbi and one achieved the rank of Archbishop and then Cardinal.
Of the then-Cardinal, Rabbi Levin observed, “One of his most distinguishing attributes was that he is a quiet and humble guy. Whereas he could have had a limo pick him up every day, the cardinal instead walked or took local transportation to the church where he worked, often stopping along the way to buy a newspaper from a local street vendor.
“Our local B.A. newspaper,” Rabbi Levin said, “recently reported that shortly after his election, the pope made his own personal long-distance phone call to that street vendor telling him, ‘I am sorry, but I have to cancel my newspaper subscription.’
“The Cardinal attended a number of our Jewish events in Buenos Aires, including a B’nai B’rith program memorializing the 1994 terrorist destruction of the Jewish community center. I expect that his friendly relationships with the Jews will continue on a very positive note.”
Judging by the applause following the rabbi’s thirty-minute interactive presentation, he was a “crowd-pleaser.” But that was to be expected. He was, after all, the right speaker, for the right time.
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