I have a long history with Rabbi Jensen because I was only here for 2 years before he was hired, so we have worked together longer than any other professionals here. It is hard to describe the excitement when this young kid was hired – we were in the midst of a rabbinic transition and looking to attract some of the younger families that did not find the synagogue meeting their needs.
At the heart of what would prove to be our significant growth was a dynamic, exciting youth department, and Rabbi Jensen was the key to program. Even though he has been joined by many other talented professionals along the way, the youth department was always his.
True partnership with the best interests of the shul in mind
I remember when his children were young, and he would always be involved with the trips and activities together with his family. Among my most memorable were the famous GNS ski trips, but there was so much more. It was not so easy to plan for a youth department when there’s so little free time for the kids because of yeshiva and school schedules. But Rabbi Jensen was successful, turning chagim into truly exciting programs for the youth department with sukkah hops and sukkah sleepovers and purim carnivals and later, speils.
Shabbos was no exception; the youth minyan enabled the youth leaders to daven before groups, but it also reinforced for them the importance of tefilah. I cannot even begin to count how many adults became more involved with the shul because their children were connected, and now we have adults who went through the youth program leading the shul – a testimony to its staying power.
As Rabbi Jensen’s children got older, he turned his focus a bit more to the teenagers of the youth department; it was a big deal to be invited to his house for an oneg, or maybe even for a Shabbos meal – and of course, his cholent!
Part of the way he connected with the children was by seeing them every day in NSHA; his talents, although primarily in informal education, were quite formidable in a more formal educational setting as well. Of course, there was always his connection to the Sephardic community, both through his students at NSHA as well as the entrance of Aksana into his life.
At the beginning I think she sometimes wondered what she had gotten herself into – Shabbos in shul was a whirlwind and Rabbi Jensen was always running around as if he was on steroids. But they grew together and with the shul and they both welcomed our youth and our students into their home.
For us at GNS, and for me personally, it is the end of an era. I know that we have and will continue to have outstanding youth leaders and a dynamic program. But if you knew pied piper Jensen, you know they just do not make them like that anymore.
We wish them well as they begin this new chapter. I am sure our paths will cross many times in the years ahead.
Rabbi Jensen and Aksana – on behalf of me and Ellen and the entire shul - thank you for all that you have done. We wish you an aliyah mutzlachat and we hope that Israel is ready for what is coming. Mazal tov!
It was a little less than three years ago that Rachel and I took our first drive to Great Neck. We actually came for Shabbos twice before our official move, and we often talk about the impressions that so many of you made on us during those two weekends.
Fast forward a bit, and we’ve gotten to know each other somewhat by now. You’ve learned some of my quirks and your’ve gotten to know a little more about me. With each passing week, our relationships grow stronger.
I can honestly say that I was really looking forward to working with a stellar staff. They haven’t disappointed. From the moment I met the Polakoffs and Lichters, I knew we’d have a natural chemistry that would enable us to take our respective roles to new places. As many of you know, I spend quite a bit of time in the GNS building during the week as well, and having Mark and Jim around has been a real pleasure as well. We all have the ability to support each other when needed, and I’m thankful for a place on this fantastic team.
Teamwork is crucial at all times, but it becomes critical during trying times, and no one can deny that the past year has been both one to remember and one to forget. With many of our congregants receiving their rounds of vaccinations as you’re reading this, it seems clear that we’re closer to the finish line than we are to the start.
This year, though, has allowed us all to reflect. We’ve been able to dig deeply within ourselves to determine what really matters most to us. We’ve reprioritized and have often learned that somethings that seemed so grand just a year ago actually don’t really matter all that much anymore. Somehow, while we’ve been torn apart, we’ve grown.
While we truly miss spending time with our friends and family, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t absolutely love spending so much time with my kids. In a normal year, they are (thankfully) always so busy - so many friends, so many playdates, and so many places to be other than home. This year, however, allowed Rachel and me the ability to spend so much time with them that if I had to look for the silver lining of this challenging year, I’d easily find it there.
I’ll let you in on a little secret about those first two weekends that Rachel and I spent in Great Neck. We were introduced to so many people. We came back home after Shabbos to unpack our experience and to talk through all that we had just encountered. It was impossible to remember names - there were just so many of you that we wanted to meet. We were so overwhelmed with details that we just couldn’t retain enough. One thing, however, stood out above all. When making casual conversation with so many of you, we were astounded by how many Great Neck residents grew up locally. Many of you never left and others moved away and then returned. Either way, it was remarkable, and Rachel and I both walked away knowing that so many of you live in Great Neck because of the childhood that it provided for you.
Over our first months (and even weeks) as residents in Great Neck, it became clear to us what made your childhood experiences so great. Our kids were immediately swallowed into the vast youth network of this community. They instantly felt at home. Being a kid is hard, and being a kid in a new place is intimidating. Rachel and I owe our children’s success to one person in particular - Rabbi Jensen.
We’re sad that we won’t get to experience the years and years of the Jensens that you’ve had. We’re sad that we won’t have our friends, the Jensen family, just around the corner from us for much longer. We’re ecstatic, however, for their opportunity.
Jensens - above all, thank you for being our friends. Thank you for helping us feel like a part of the team. Thank you for feeling comfortable enough to stop by unannounced and for always welcoming us when we did the same.
We’ll miss you.
Our Rabbis tell us (Megillah 17a) that one who reads the Megillah out of order – l’mafreah – does not fulfill his obligation. For instance, one who reads the details of what occurred when Esther invited Haman to her party prior to reading about the decrees of Achashveirosh issued at Haman’s urging is considered to be reading the Megillah backwards and fails to truly capture the sequential events of the (hidden) miracles that took place. The Baal Shem Tov adds that this halacha is referring to someone who reads the Megillah and only celebrates the wonders that Hashem performed many years ago in the past. He doesn’t fulfill his obligation because our task in celebrating the miracles of thousands of years ago is to acquire the awareness to celebrate the miracles of today as well.
Additionally, this halacha of hakoreh l’mafreiah eino yotzei highlights the need to not only recognize Hashem – l’mafreiah – in retrospect – to look back at our lives and see how every occurrence was indeed for our good. But the Mishna is teaching us that although beneficial, recognizing Hashem only in retrospect in not sufficient. Rather, even during the instances in our lives where things appear to be at their most challenging, we are encouraged to praise Hashem to trust that all of His orchestrations are for our betterment.
Great Neck Synagogue is honoring Rabbi Sholom and Aksana Jensen this year in the Virtual Gala during a different time of year that we are accustomed to celebrating our synagogue. Appropriately, we celebrate R’ Sholom and Aksana over the Holiday of Purim, a holiday that has personified their spiritual personality and contributions to our synagogue. The famous Purim Shpiel and overall festive nature that Rabbi Jensen imbued in Purim for all of us is something that has forever enhanced our celebrations. The youth department led by Rabbi Jensen for the last thirty years has been one of the foremost synagogue youth departments in the country with so many attempting to learn from Rabbi Jensen. While programs and ideas may be copied, Rabbi Jensen’s exuberance and legendary energy is truly inimitable. On a personal level, Rabbi & Aksana have become the closest of friends and have provided immense mentorship and leadership in modeling communal efforts. Our children are the true beneficiaries of their love and devotion to our synagogue.
Rabbi Jensen has taught us how to approach each day, if not each moment of the day, with great appreciation for what Hashem provides us. While he enjoys celebrating the history of GNS, his awareness of Hashem’s blessings is never exclusively in retrospect, but always directed to future endeavors. The Jensen’s upcoming Aliyah to Israel is evidence of that. It is a dream that Rabbi Jensen not only hoped for but also continually spoke about in an effort to inspire others.
We are incredibly happy for R’ Sholom and Aksana as they embark on this next chapter in their lives and look forward to hearing about all the ways they will infuse Israel with their infectious smile and energy. We thank you and are indeed inspired by you.
This year the Great Neck Synagogue is privileged to honor Rabbi and Aksana Jensen at the first ever GNS Virtual Gala. For the last 30 years, Rabbi Jensen has created innovative youth programing including but not limited to Succah Sleepovers, the Purim Shpeil, Ski Trips, Kiddush Cup Club, Torah Madness, Chanukah at MSG and many others. Rabbi Jensen has been to all our GNS family’s smachot and at all these events he has led the dancing. One event that I would like to mention took place in January of 94’. A NSHA student was putting on Tefillin for the first time in the GNS main sanctuary. As most proud parents do, they made sure to have their camera set up to record the special day. When Rabbi Jensen saw the camera, he figured that it wasn’t recording, and this was an opportunity to put a smile on the students faces. He went up to the lens and began making crazy faces. When the lens started focusing, he realized that the camera was recording. He succeeded everyone was laughing at the situation. Fast forward many years and that video belongs to the current President of the GNS.
We will cherish all the amazing memories we have made together, and although we have to say goodbye to our wonderful friends, we are so happy for the Rabbi and Aksana on their journey to Israel.
Rivka and I wish you much success and happiness.