Thanks to our 150th Celebration Committee members, we are sharing A Moment in our History series for a deeper understanding of where we came from, and where we are going in our future. We hope you enjoy these brief glimpses into our past!
Rabbi Emeritus Michael Zedek moved to Cincinnati in 2000 after serving B’nai Jehudah for 26 years. The Congregation underwent a period of considerable transition for the next three years. Rabbi Joshua Taub, already a rabbi of the Congregation, was Senior Rabbi for two years. Interim Rabbi Marc Disick served for one year. We opened the Learning Center in Overland Park in 2000 and consolidated all operations there in 2003.
A search committee led by Howard Mayer (president 2009-11) interviewed candidates and recommended hiring Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff as Senior Rabbi. He was approved by the congregation and began what would become an 18-year tenure on July 1, 2003.
Arthur P. Nemitoff was born in Kansas City in 1954. His father, William, was a sales representative of furniture and bedding supplies and equipment. His mother, Henrietta, came from an observant family and stayed home with her four children in the early years. Arthur enrolled in B’nai Jehudah’s religious school at age five and the Congregation welcomed the Nemitoff family with open arms, though they had limited ability to afford dues.
William Nemitoff died suddenly from a heart attack when Art was 15 years old. Henrietta went to work as a nurse in order to support the family. She went on to earn Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in nursing and enjoyed a successful career at Research Medical Center as director of a new transitional nursing program.
Arthur turned to B’nai Jehudah for support after losing his beloved father. For a period of one year, he walked three blocks to minyan services each day at our 69th Street and Holmes building. At times, there were a handful of other worshippers at the afternoon service. In other instances, Nemitoff was the only one present. He found solace in the daily ritual and grew in his spirituality during that year.
Nemitoff attended Southwest High School, a few blocks from B’nai Jehudah. He continued his Jewish education in the local Hebrew High program and was one of four students who graduated with its first class. In 1971, he spent six weeks in Israel on the Kansas City youth pilgrimage. The trip was a seminal event in his life, one that would have a lasting influence for decades to come.
After high school, Art enrolled as a pre-med student at Washington University in St. Louis. After two years, he changed his major to psychology and began considering the rabbinate as a career. He wrote to rabbis he knew and sought their input into his decision process. He was encouraged by their responses. He taught Sunday school at United Hebrew Congregation and served as a BBYO chapter advisor during his college years.
Nemitoff graduated from Washington University in 1976 and entered Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that July.
He studied at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus the first year and was waiting for at friend at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on July 4. While there, Nemitoff heard a large airplane landing and observed its passengers disembarking. That plane was an Israel Defense Forces C-130 Hercules and the passengers were the Jewish hostages who had just been rescued from Uganda’s Entebbe Airport by IDF commandos. He witnessed a historic moment on his first day in the Jewish state.
Israel was a precarious place in 1976-77. Early on, Nemitoff spent a night holding a rifle on guard duty in the front lobby of his student dormitory. Terrorist bombings were a regular occurrence and a devastating blast was detonated at a site he had visited hours earlier.
Art returned to HUC-JIR’s Cincinnati campus for the next four years and was one of 40 Reform rabbis ordained in 1981. He won the class homiletics award for writing and delivering sermons.
Nemitoff first served as assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. He served other congregations in Levittown, PA, Peabody, MA and Brookline, MA. He and Leslie Ringel were married in 1987.
He served as Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel in Columbus, OH from 1995-2003. Much like B’nai Jehudah, Temple Israel celebrated its 150th anniversary and completed a major renovation during his tenure there.
Rabbi Nemitoff was not looking to leave Columbus but was intrigued by a phone call telling him that he needed to come home to B’nai Jehudah, which was struggling with transition issues at the time. He felt a sense of indebtedness to his childhood congregation and remembered the support he received here following his father’s death. He applied for the Senior Rabbi position and was chosen to follow interim Rabbi Mark Disick.
“I returned to repay a debt,” he often said.
Nemitoff began at B’nai Jehudah on July 1, 2003. It was also the first day of work for Rabbi Neal Schuster and Cantor Sharon Kohn. The entire clergy team was new and Nemitoff’s first priority was to create a unified B’nai Jehudah community. Some families left the Congregation during and after this period of transition. Rabbi Nemitoff wrote a letter to all former members who left and had conversations with about 100 of them. He estimates that 75-100 former members rejoined B’nai Jehudah.
Rabbi Nemitoff recognized that the Congregation had tremendous needs including healing. He focused his energies internally during the first few years at B’nai Jehudah. Nemitoff brought in a consultant from the Alban Institute, a resource for congregations that has since closed.
He encouraged the formation of a Shared Vision Task Force, which spent many months defining what kind of congregation we wanted to be. Based on the work of that Task Force, the Congregation adopted a core purpose: “To nurture Jewish meaning, connection and continuity.” The congregation’s core values were defined as “Open Hearts, Kedushah (holiness/sacredness), and Derech Eretz (common decency).” We set a goal of every congregant pursuing an individualized Jewish path.
In the Congregation
Rabbi Nemitoff implemented a number of innovations during his 18 years at B’nai Jehudah, all of which were designed to increase participation and meaning.
- Shabbat Chadash was introduced as a contemporary musical service with seating in the round. It was held one Friday night each month and enjoyed consistently strong attendance.
- The Congregation conducted a Tefillah (prayer) study in 2012-13, to ascertain worship preferences. Internal research showed that the most meaningful liturgy elements were music and message, with a preference for contemporary music. These preferences were incorporated into services and resulted in higher Friday night Shabbat attendance.
- Shabbat in the Park began in 2013 and has continued as an outdoor service series at Gezer and Loose Parks each summer. Attendance has reached several hundred at many of these services and they attract worshippers from outside the Congregation. Shabbat in the Park is patterned after Beit Tefilah Israeli’s Erev Shabbat service, held outdoors at the Tel Aviv Port.
- Rabbi and Leslie Nemitoff opened their home to the entire congregation the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah each year. Congregants gathered at the Nemitoff home for fellowship and food followed by Tashlich at a nearby pond.
- In social justice programming, Nemitoff introduced an annual Mitzvah Day one Sunday each year. As many as 650 congregants volunteer their time each year to support various local projects, non-profits and a blood drive. Addressing hunger was another focus and the Congregation’s volunteers continue to help feed the hungry at kitchens in Kansas City and Olathe.
- Rabbi Nemitoff also introduced an annual confirmation class trip to New York City. He and Leslie traveled with students to visit historical and Jewish sites as well as to engage in social justice activities there.
- Israel is one of Nemitoff’s passions and he led several congregational trips with typical stops in Tel Aviv, the North, the Dead Sea, Kibbutz Gezer and Jerusalem. He supports the Women of the Wall and says he is “lovingly critical and supportive of Israel.”
- Rabbi Nemitoff introduced Machane Jehudah, a two-week summer day camp with monthly meetings throughout the school year. It was offered as an alternative to traditional Sunday school with the goal of increasing engagement among school children.
In addition to these innovations, Rabbi Nemitoff was instrumental in the vision and fundraising for our 2019 building renovation. He successfully advocated for a much larger scale project that was initially contemplated and was closely involved in the design process.
In the Community
While Rabbi Nemitoff intentionally focused internally during his early years at B’nai Jehudah, he also formed relationships with other clergy and organizations in the community.
United Methodist Church of the Resurrection was founded in 1990 by its lead pastor, Reverend Adam Hamilton. The church, with its original campus located two miles from B’nai Jehudah, has become the largest United Methodist congregation in the world. It has more than 25,000 members and multiple locations.
Nemitoff and Hamilton became close colleagues and engaged in pulpit exchanges. They traveled to Israel together in 2019 to produce a series of video teachings about King David that were presented at both B’nai Jehudah and Resurrection. We held High Holiday services at Church of the Resurrection in 2004 and again in 2019, when our building was under renovation. The church’s video production department produced our online High Holiday services in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Violent anti-Semitism came to Overland Park on the afternoon of Sunday, April 13, 2014. Perhaps not coincidentally, Erev Passover was the next day. An anti-Semite from rural southern Missouri shot and killed Dr. William Corporon and his 14-year-old grandson, Reat Underwood at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. The shooter then drove one mile to Village Shalom where he murdered Terri LaManno. None of the victims were Jewish. Police learned that the shooter also intended attacks at area synagogues including B’nai Jehudah, but he was apprehended first.
Rabbi Nemitoff led a community response to the tragic shootings. Four days after the attack, 1,300 people gathered at the Jewish Community Center for an interfaith Service of Unity and Hope. Rabbi Nemitoff, Reverend Hamilton and other clergy spoke at the service, which also was attended by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Nemitoff engaged with Mindy Corporon, the daughter of William Corporon and mother of Reat Underwood. As a response to the shootings, Mindy founded Faith Always Wins Foundation to increase tolerance. Rabbi Nemitoff and B’nai Jehudah members were involved in supporting the Foundation and its Seven Days activities from the beginning.
Post B’nai Jehudah
Rabbi Nemitoff informed the Congregation of his desire to retire effective June 30, 2021 after a 40-year pulpit career.
He will be remembered as a healer, an innovator and for several firsts: our first Senior Rabbi who was raised in the Congregation; the first whose policy included officiating at interfaith weddings; and the first to officiate at same-sex weddings.
Arthur Nemitoff was elected Rabbi Emeritus in 2021, only the fourth rabbi in the Congregation’s 150-year history to have been so honored. Our small prayer space, which he imagined and helped design, is named the Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff Small Prayer Space in his honor.
Nemitoff’s near term plans include serving as a part-time interim rabbi in Des Moines and continuing his passion of advancing Progressive Judaism internationally. He hopes to return to Shanghai, China to work with the progressive Kehilat Shanghai Congregation.
He also plans to spend more time with Leslie, his daughter, Rabbi Elana Nemitoff-Bresler and son, William Nemitoff, and their families.
In one of Rabbi Nemitoff’s departing messages to the Congregation, he shared a personal philosophy that guided his 18 years at B’nai Jehudah, “Dream of what’s possible and put your heart and back into doing it right.”
By Dan Stolper
July 22, 2021