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Wanted: A 'friendly' human face to grace a global army of robots

Are you exceptionally fond of your face?

More specifically: Are you so fond of your face that you'd like to see it plastered on a global fleet of humanoid robots for years to come?

If you answered "yes" to both questions — which would hardly be surprising in the "selfie" era — a British engineering and manufacturing firm wants to hear from you. That firm, Geomiq, claims it has been hired by a mysterious robotics company to put out a call for photo submissions. The reason: Said company has developed a humanoid robot that is nearing completion but still in need of the right visage.

The line between an epic ego boost and a nightmare from a "Black Mirror" episode, it seems, has never been thinner.

In a statement posted online, Geomiq says the robotics company — which remains unnamed due to an apparent nondisclosure agreement — isn't looking for just any old face, but a "kind and friendly" one that will may be reproduced "on potentially thousands of versions of the robots worldwide," according to the statement.

The blog post doesn't specify whether designers are seeking a particular age or gender for their robotic face.

Geomiq notes that theirs is a "unique request." As if trying to outdo that understatement, the company points out that licensing one's face to a humanoid robotic project of unknown origin is, after all, "potentially an extremely big decision."

Potentially, indeed. But, they add, a nearly $130,000 enticement awaits the bold individual who agrees to let the robotics company license their visage, likely altering the course of their life forever.

Because the Internet is an unregulated house of mirrors patrolled by piratical tricksters who traffic in flimflam, it's unclear whether Geomiq's request is a daring social experiment, a prank or a legitimate plea for assistance. The firm's statement includes a semi-detailed explanation for their client's secrecy.

"The company is privately funded and says the robots' purpose will be to act as a 'virtual friend' for elderly people, and is set to go into production next year," the statement says. "The designer has said that the project has been in development for five years, and has since taken on investment from a number of independent VCs as well as a top fund based in Shanghai."

"The company says the need for anonymity is due to the 'secretive' nature of the project, however it believes the robot will soon be 'readily available' to the public and hopes the campaign will create extra buzz ahead of its eventual release," the statement adds.

The company claims that candidates whose faces advance to the next phase of the selection process can expect full transparency about the nature of the robotics project.

Not sure if your face is worthy of gracing a robot army? Don't fret. There's already a seemingly endless variety of robot faces on the market today, their design often reflective of the machine's purpose and expected location. Some robots, like the $1 million robotic Buddhist priest, Mindar, have human-like faces, though they're not always equipped to carry out realistic human expressions.

In Thailand, one hospital has introduced robotic nurses whose faces consist largely of two blazing red eyes — each one massive and ghoulish — which glare from behind a darkened pane of transparent plastic like a demonic predator lurking in the dark. The robotic assistant known as Pepper, meanwhile, has a nonthreatening face with cartoonishly large eyes that are designed to put people at ease.

In recent years, a growing number of robots have been developed with faces rendered on a screen, offering designers more flexibility in how they define a robot's personality. Last year, roboticists from the University of Washington in Seattle identified 157 different robots with rendered faces. Researchers categorized the faces according to dozens of attributes and then surveyed people about their reaction to different robotic facial styles.

In their paper, "Characterizing the Design Space of Rendered Robot Faces," researchers report that the plurality of robot faces are black (34.4%) and most (65.6%) include a mouth, but less than half have eyebrows and even fewer have a nose. Less than one in 10 robots have hair and even fewer have ears. Most robot eyes are white and circular and generally feature pupils.

Though seemingly innocuous, a robot's facial features can have an enormous impact on how they're received by humans, who are hardwired to recognize and closely read faces.

"Faces are critical in establishing the agency of social robots; however, building expressive mechanical faces is costly and difficult," the paper states.

"We find that participants preferred less realistic and less detailed robots in the home, but highly detailed yet not exceedingly realistic robots for service jobs," the paper adds. "The lack of key features like pupils and mouths resulted in low likability ratings and engendered distrust, leading participants to relegate them to security jobs."

Blue Cross launches short-term health plan, billed as more affordable option to Obamacare

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska has launched a new health insurance option for individuals and families in the state.

The insurer is billing the plan, called Armor Health, as a more affordable option aimed especially at healthy people younger than 65 who might not qualify for a subsidy to help cover the cost of coverage on the federal Affordable Care Act marketplace, also known as Obamacare. It’s also an option for small-business owners seeking coverage for four employees or fewer, according to Blue Cross.

Armor Health is what’s known as a short-term plan, and it will join other short-duration plans available in the state. Nebraska Insurance Director Bruce Ramge said his department has approved 17 such plans for sale in Nebraska in 2020.

Unlike plans offered under the ACA, insurers can reject applicants or charge higher premiums based on their health conditions under short-term plans. And the plans don’t have to cover all of the benefits required of a plan on the exchange. Maternity care, for instance, often is not covered by short-term plans.

Because of those limitations, short-term plans have been the subject of some debate since the Trump administration last year issued a rule allowing such plans to run for up to a year and be renewable for three years. Previously, they’d been limited to shorter terms and were seen as offering a bridge for coverage gaps. Critics have warned that such plans, when used long term, could leave patients with high medical bills if they need care that isn’t covered.

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Blue Cross officials say their new plan resembles the individual policies available before the ACA and is designed to provide an affordable option with quality coverage for a segment of the population that’s currently underserved.

“Individual policies in Nebraska are far too expensive, especially for those who utilize little to moderate care,” Dale Mackel, Blue Cross executive vice president, said in a statement. “This population needs a more affordable choice.”

According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, Nebraska had the nation’s second-highest average individual benchmark premium — $838 a month — in 2019. For 2020, it’s down to $711 a month and ranks fourth-highest.

Indeed, Minnesota-based Medica has posted an average rate decrease of nearly 7% for three individual ACA plans available in Nebraska for 2020. Bright Health, also based in Minnesota, also has entered Nebraska’s market and is offering competitive rates for 2020.

That’s a change from previous years. Nebraska and Iowa residents saw single-digit increases or slightly lower rates this year. But that followed several years of double-digit increases.

Chuck Olson, chief executive of the Omaha insurance brokerage OCi Insurance and Financial Services, said his firm has been offering short-term plans to people who can’t afford ACA-compliant plans and who face the choice of going without insurance.

That may apply to people who earn just above the income guidelines that would qualify them for a federal subsidy and those who are self-employed.

If people know what they need covered, short-term plans can be a good option that allow people to choose the benefits they want and not pay for benefits they don’t want, he said. Not everyone needs maternity coverage, for instance. And the cost can be up to 30% less than for an ACA-compliant plan.

“We see too many people go without coverage because they can’t afford $900 a month for themselves,” Olson said.

Blue Cross officials said Armor Health does not cover maternity services. But it does provide benefits for a number of services not usually covered by short-term plans, including prescription drugs and outpatient treatment for mental health and substance abuse. Preexisting conditions are included once a waiting period has been satisfied. Routine preventive services follow ACA guidelines and are free of charge.

“We expect Armor Health to be a popular choice and are already seeing significant interest in the new plan,” Mackel said in his statement.

Roughly 88,000 Nebraskans purchase health insurance on the federal marketplace each year. Most — upward of 90% — receive subsidies, according to the Nebraska Department of Insurance.

Another alternative plan, a Nebraska Farm Bureau option launched as what’s known as an association plan, has switched to a short-term plan for 2020 because of a federal court challenge.

To make sure consumers and insurance agents can compare their benefits with those of other plans on the market, the state insurance department has issued guidance for consumers and for companies writing the plans.

Coverage under Armor Health begins Jan. 1, 2020, but purchasers can enroll at any time of the year. Unlike the ACA, there is no specific open enrollment period. Coverage continues for 12 months.

Open enrollment under the ACA continues through Dec. 15 at healthcare.gov

As always, consumers need to make sure they know what they’re buying. Ramge encouraged consumers to work with their local insurance agent to select the best plan for their needs. Consumers also should exercise caution if they receive unsolicited phone calls or other communications about health insurance products.

17 rare and unusual health stories out of Omaha

Ousted ambassador describes intimidation
Trump's tweeted criticism of ex-envoy to Ukraine during impeachment hearing may become evidence against him

WASHINGTON (AP) — In chilling detail, ousted U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch described to Trump impeachment investigators Friday how she felt threatened upon learning that President Donald Trump had promised Ukraine's leader she was "going to go through some things."

Trump was unwilling to stay silent during Yovanovitch's testimony, focusing even greater national attention on the House hearing by becoming a participant. He tweeted criticism of her, saying that things "turned bad" everywhere she served before he fired her — a comment that quickly was displayed on a video screen in the hearing room.

Rather than distract from the career diplomat's testimony, Trump's interference could provide more evidence against him in the probe. Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump's attacks were intimidation, "part of a pattern to obstruct justice." Others said they could be part of an article of impeachment.

The former ambassador testified on the second day of public impeachment hearings, just the fourth time in American history that the House of Representatives has launched such proceedings. The investigation centers on whether Trump's push for Ukrainian officials to investigate his political rivals amounted to an abuse of power, a charge he and Republicans deny.

Yovanovitch, asked about the potential effect of a presidential threat on other officials or witnesses, replied, "Well, it's very intimidating."

When she saw in print what the president had said about her, she said, a friend told her that all the color drained from her face. She was "shocked, appalled, devastated" at what was happening after a 30-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Trump, asked later about his tweets, replied: "I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech."

Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming said Trump's live tweeting at the ambassador was wrong. She said, "I don't think the president should have done that."

More hearings are coming, with back-to-back sessions next week and lawmakers interviewing new witnesses behind closed doors.

Yovanovitch, who served for decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents and was appointed by Ronald Reagan, was pushed from her post in Kyiv earlier this year amid criticism from Trump allies.

During her testimony, she relayed her story of being "kneecapped," recalled from Kyiv by Trump in a swiftly developing series of events that sounded alarms about a WhiteHouse shadow foreign policy.

She described a "smear campaign" against her by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others, including the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., before her firing.

She is the daughter of immigrants who fled the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Her career included three tours as an ambassador to some of the world's tougher postings before she arrived in Ukraine in 2016. She was forced out in May.

In particular, Yovanovitch described Giuliani, Trump's lawyer, as leading what William Taylor had described in earlier testimony as an "irregular channel" outside the diplomatic mainstream. Taylor is now the top diplomat in Ukraine.

"These events should concern everyone in this room," Yovanovitch testified in opening remarks. She said her removal had played into the hands of "shady interests the world over" with dangerous intentions toward the United States. They have learned, she said, "how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want."

After Trump's tweets pulled attention away from her, Schiff read the president's comments aloud, saying "as we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter," and asked if that was a tactic to intimidate.

"I can't speak to what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is to be intimidated," she said.

Said Schiff, "Well, I want to let you know, ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously."

In a closed-door session later Friday, the panel heard from David Holmes, a State Department official in Kyiv who said he overheard Trump asking about investigations into political rivals the day after Trump's July 25 phone conversation with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Holmes was at lunch in Kyiv with Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, when Sondland called Trump. The conversation was loud enough to be overheard.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said two other people heard the call as well and there were four people at the lunch. The Associated Press has already identified one of the other people who heard the call as Suriya Jayanti, a foreign service officer based in Kyiv.

In Trump's phone call with Zelenskiy the previous day, he asked for a "favor," according to an account provided by the White House. He wanted an investigation of Democrats and 2020 rival Joe Biden. Later it was revealed that the administration was withholding military aid from Ukraine at the time.

Democrats are relying on the testimony of officials close to the Ukraine matter to make their case as they consider whether the president's behavior is impeachable.

Yovanovitch provides a key element, Schiff said, as someone whom Trump and Giuliani wanted out of the way to make room for others more favorable to their interests in Ukraine, an energy-rich country that has long struggled with corruption.

It became clear, he said, "President Trump wanted her gone."

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, labeled the hearings a "daylong TV spectacle."

Republicans said the ambassador, like other witnesses, can offer only hearsay testimony and only knows of Trump's actions secondhand. They note that Yovanovitch had left her position before the July phone call.

Nunes also pressed to hear from the anonymous government whistleblower who alerted officials about Trump's phone call with Ukraine that is in question. "These hearings should not be occurring at all," he said.

Under questioning from Republicans, Yovanovitch acknowledged that Joe Biden's son, Hunter, serving on the board of a gas company in Ukraine could have created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

But she testified the former vice president acted in accordance with official U.S. policy.

She denied that she favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 election, and she rejected the notion that Ukraine tried to interfere in the election, as Trump has claimed counter to mainstream U.S. intelligence findings that it was Russia.

The White House has instructed officials not to comply with the probe, and most have been issued subpoenas to appear.

An administration budget official will meet privately with the panel Saturday. Part of the impeachment inquiry concerns the contention that military aid for Ukraine, which borders Russia, was being withheld through the White House budget office, pending Ukrainian agreement to investigate Biden and the 2016 U.S. election.

Grace: Every toppled headstone at Jewish cemetery in Omaha represents a life story to be told

The headstones of Kenneth Freed’s father and uncle, both Jewish immigrants, were among those desecrated at Temple Israel’s cemetery property at 6412 N. 42nd St.

Kenneth Freed walks through the open gates of one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Nebraska. He has come to show the damage — the largest desecration to a Jewish cemetery, or any cemetery for that matter — in Omaha in recent memory.

In a place where 2,325 people are buried, gravestones have been overturned. Eighty-five of them is the most recent count.

These once-vertical markers have been pushed over, knocked off their stone pedestals, and some have broken. They lay face up or face down, a fresh crust of snow on this freezing November day obscuring the engraved names and dates and Stars of David and Hebrew words.


Kenneth Freed has 10 family members buried in the cemetery owned by Temple Israel. He and his wife plan to be buried there, too.

The snow covers the stories, adding further insult here to this 82-year-old son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Freed spent a career as a reporter, including at The World-Herald, unearthing stories. The Jewish faith teaches that each life contains a whole world. Beyond that, Freed takes this cemetery violation very personally. He has 10 family members here in this piece of earth west of the B’nai Jacob cemetery gate at 42nd Street and Newport Avenue. He and his wife, Sandra, plan to be buried here.

Freed leads me past upright monuments and markers pushed over like dominoes until we get to the cemetery’s far corner. Here, two stone tablets lie face up and snow-covered. Freed reaches into his pocket for a glove but doesn’t bother putting it on. Instead, the old reporter scrubs the glove at the crusted snow until the first words of a story appear: Beloved Father. Schoal K. Freed.

* * *


The Freed family, including Miriam, center, and Schoal, right.

Omaha’s Jewish history is long and rich.

This history involves various nationalities, styles of worship and waves of immigration, reflecting what was happening in the 1800s and 1900s as Jews around the world fled religious persecution for the promise of religious freedom in America.

Jewish newcomers settled in Omaha, built lives and businesses and communities. Because the Jewish faith dictates certain burial practices and rituals regarding remembering the dead, the first order of business was typically establishing a cemetery.

That’s exactly what happened in Omaha. First came the Jewish cemetery in 1871, then the synagogue in 1884.

A charitable organization, the B’nai Israel Society, bought those first 5 acres of land along what is now North 42nd Street and gave the property to the Congregation of Israel, now called Temple Israel. Temple Israel’s first synagogue was downtown.

The congregation was able to help secondary waves of Jewish immigrants who came from Russia and Eastern Europe, often with nothing. One of the first ways of helping was providing some of its cemetery property to two orthodox congregations: Anshe Sholom and B’nai Jacob.

The Freed family was among these Russian Jewish newcomers. Kenneth Freed’s grandfather, Jacob, and an uncle, Joe, came to Omaha by way of Galveston, Texas, in 1910. They were among the Jewish immigrants brought to America through Texas in an effort to move the newcomers away from crowded East Coast cities.

In 1912, Jacob’s wife, Miriam, arrived with four more children, including Kenneth’s father, Schoal. Schoal was 11. The family lived on the second floor of a house on Lake Street, between 15th and 16th Streets.

Miriam died of cancer within two years of her arrival. Schoal was raised by his older sister. His sister’s husband opened a grocery store in north Omaha, and Schoal, after all of eight months of grade school education, worked there.

Joe Freed, who was six years older than Schoal, enlisted and served in France during World War I.

Schoal drifted toward gambling, becoming a bookie, a side hustle he held for the next 30 years. His legitimate work history included vending and slot machine work and, during World War II, repairing bombers at the old Martin Bomber plant, which became Offutt Air Force Base.

Schoal married at age 36 to an Omaha woman who was Christian, half his age and wanted to convert but never did. Kenneth was born that year, 1937. Two sisters would follow. The children were raised Jewish.

They attended services at high holidays and special events. Schoal belonged to three synagogues, including B’Nai Jacob.

Kenneth went to Hebrew school in Omaha, attended Friday night services and later in college joined a Jewish fraternity.

Schoal wasn’t formally educated but was a smart man who could speak Yiddish, some Russian and some German, enough to translate Adolf Hitler’s radio broadcasts.

He stood only 5-foot-1 but weighed about 175 pounds and was to his son, “the toughest man I ever knew.”

Kenneth doesn’t remember his father having an accent, though all his friends swore that he did and even Kenneth remembers that his dad couldn’t say his name. “Kennet,” is how Schoal pronounced it.

The family later lived in the Country Club neighborhood on a street where every house but one was owned by a Jewish family. Synagogues then were clustered in Dundee.


Kenneth Freed's father and uncle, who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, are among his relatives buried in the vandalized Jewish cemetery. 

Being Jewish was an important part of their identity and certainly the reason they had come. Persecution was a part of their Jewish DNA, though Schoal had escaped it and Kenneth didn’t really live it in Omaha.

The Jewish community in Omaha was more cohesive then. More than one-third of Kenneth’s 1955 Central High graduating class was Jewish.

Religious prejudice then would have kept Jewish Omahans out of some circles, like country clubs. But it didn’t keep Kenneth from getting an education: undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master’s from the University of Oklahoma.

Kenneth went on to a prestigious journalism career that included the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, where he worked for almost 20 years at foreign bureaus around the world: Tehran, Iran; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and El Salvador, to name a few. Freed worked at The World-Herald for less than two years, starting in 1996; I started in 1998. Freed then got a fellowship in Beirut, taught at Ohio University and lived in Baltimore. He moved back to Omaha three years ago.

Though Freed married a Jewish woman who kept kosher for 40 years and they raised their children Jewish, he doesn’t consider himself religious. He doesn’t belong to a particular synagogue and attends services sporadically. He calls himself an atheist.

Schoal didn’t live to see any of this. He died of a heart attack in 1955. He was 54. He was buried at B’nai Jacob. The Star of David was inscribed above his name. The words in Hebrew beneath say, “May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”

* * *


 The Jewish cemetery on North 42nd Street dates to 1871.

The history of Judaism has a parallel history of persecution, most notoriously the Holocaust, in which Hilter’s Nazi regime killed some 6 million Jewish people.

That event, perhaps more than any other, put the world — Jews in particular — on alert for signs of anti-Semitism that might start with vandalism and morph into something far more dangerous.

Jews and Jewish institutions are most often the targets of religious-based hate crimes, according to the FBI’s report on 2018 hate crimes. Released Tuesday, the report shows that hate crimes in general edged down after being on the increase. The Anti-Defamation League, a group that tracks incidences of anti-Semitism, said the FBI’s measures are incomplete. It said the statistics are based on voluntary law enforcement reporting and showed that fewer agencies reported in 2018.

But the hate crime data that was collected showed that hate crimes based on race are the most often reported and that hate crimes against Latinos and LGBTQ people went up. And it included the highest number of hate crime murders since the FBI began measuring hate crimes in 1991. Twenty-four people were killed in hate crimes, including the 11 slaughtered at a Pittsburgh synagogue in a mass shooting. The shooter, who was injured along with six others, had targeted Jewish people.


Some of the gravestones. Temple Israel says it would be irresponsible to call this anti-Semitism. But David Barkey of the national Anti-Defamation League says the vandalism “obviously is perceived as an attack on the Jewish community.”

What happened in Omaha? At last count, 85 headstones at Temple Israel’s cemetery property at 6412 N. 42nd St. were turned over or damaged between Nov. 1 and Nov. 5. Police, so far, are coming up empty: There are no apparent witnesses, no surveillance cameras and no leads. There is also no swastika or explicit anti-Jewish graffiti, leading to some difference in opinion about how to interpret the act of vandalism.

Leaders of Temple Israel, which has posted the names on affected headstones on its website and is collecting funds for repair, say it would be irresponsible to call this anti-Semitism when that cannot be proven.

“At this point, we don’t have any indication of motivation,” said Rabbi Brian Stoller of Temple Israel. “Absent such evidence, we do not feel it’s responsible to claim or imply (anti-Semitism).”

Others say the absence of specific anti-Semitic calling cards does not negate the fact that it was Jewish tombstones at a Jewish cemetery that were targeted when tombstone damage at cemeteries in general is not well-reported or, anecdotally, something that seems to happen much and certainly not on that scale.

“This is anti-Semitism,” said Rabbi Steven Abraham of Beth El Synagogue. “Vandalism can happen to anybody. Anti-Semitism can’t. Let’s use the right language. Being Jewish for 5,000 years has had consequences.”

A spot check at other cemeteries and World-Herald records did not turn up much on cemetery damage in general. The Prospect Hill Cemetery in northeast Omaha has long had vandalized tombstones that need repair. An Archdiocese of Omaha spokesman said vandalism isn’t a problem at Catholic cemeteries, something that was echoed by staffers at several other cemeteries around town. A check through the past 20 years of World-Herald archives revealed just one story on widespread damage. In 2001, vandals damaged or stole vases from 50 burial plots at Voss Mohr Cemetery near 138th and Harrison Streets.

Regardless of the vandals’ motives, Jewish leaders agree on this: It hurts.

“It creates incredible insecurity within the community, strikes fear within the community and obviously is perceived as an attack on the Jewish community,” said David Barkey, national religious freedom counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

Jeanette Gabriel, director of the Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said whoever pushed over the gravestones had to have known that they were desecrating a holy place. How to perceive that?

“I don’t know if it’s an act of hatred,” she said. “But it’s happening in the context of the atmosphere of rising hatred.”

* * *


The tombstones of Kenneth Freed’s father and uncle were among the more than 85 markers broken or knocked down at the Jewish cemetery on North 42nd Street.

Omaha has made headlines far and wide for being the one place on earth where Christians, Muslims and Jews can worship together on a shared campus.

The Tri-Faith Initiative has been taking shape for the past decade on land at 132nd and Pacific Streets where, ironically, there was once a Jewish country club created in a response to anti-Semitism. (Long ago, Omaha Jews weren’t allowed into other country clubs).

This seems to perfectly sum up both the hope of a city that is trying to move forward and a past that was not immune from religious bigotry.

It is a similar push-pull when one considers the horror of the anti-Semitic-motivated slaughter at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year and the response in Omaha.

“There were as many non-Jews as Jews there,” Temple Israel Executive Director Dennis DePorte said about a packed memorial service held at Beth El Synagogue after the shooting.

DePorte characterized Omaha as “a very accepting place.”

Stoller, the Temple Israel rabbi, said Omaha has “fertile ground” for experiments like Tri-Faith because of “a general ethos of acceptance, welcoming and pluralism.”

* * *


Eighty-five headstones were knocked down at the Jewish cemetery on North 42nd Street. “Every person buried in our cemetery has made his or her impact on the world in a uniquely profound way," said Rabbi Brian Stoller of Temple Israel. "Everyone buried there has a story.”

How to explain vandalism on such scale?

The damage is estimated at $40,000. Temple Israel is organizing a response that includes a list of the names on the tombstones and a collection for restoration funds.

Some speculate that the vandalism was post-Halloween youth high jinks, facilitated by the cemeteries’ out-of-the-way location.

Temple Israel owns and cares for its own cemetery (1,370 graves) and the adjacent cemeteries: B’nai Jacob (642 graves) and Anshe Sholom, also called B’nai Shalom, (313 graves). Together, they span an area almost three blocks long and a block deep, running along 42nd Street from Vernon to Newport Avenues.

It’s a neighborhood that changes by the block.

On 42nd Street, where Temple Israel’s modern gate and B’nai Jacob’s old one offer the only entrance in, the houses are neat, and neighbors say the street is quiet. No roving bands of troublemakers. Just families, longtime residents and young children. These neighbors say they see very little traffic in and out of the cemetery and use it themselves as a place to stroll or walk the dog. Not all were aware that the cemetery was Jewish. One neighbor complained about overgrowth.

Two sides of the cemetery are overgrown and hard to reach. On the north, 42nd Street almost dead-ends, with “No Trespassing” and “No Outlet” signs in front of a giant gate and concrete barricades leading north of the cemetery. Trees and brush obscure the north fence line, and I was startled by a giant deer on the other side. The cemetery’s west side gate is locked, but the fence is broken. Along 44th Street, there are a few houses and one barn.

The area south of the cemetery is populated by many small houses, and a man laughed when I told him that neighbors up the street had characterized the area as quiet. He asked not to be identified but said he saw police send a police dog into the cemetery after a suspect who had run in there to hide. The dog flushed the suspect out. He also described seeing a deer get caught in the cemetery fence.

All said that they didn’t know about the overturned headstones or that they didn’t know who would have done something like that.

“Don’t see nobody,” said Cameron Lyons, a second-shift meatpacker who walks his dog through the cemetery regularly before he leaves for his 2 p.m. shift.

Charlotte Michalski, who has lived in a house facing the cemetery almost all her 55 years, said she doesn’t see much traffic there but acknowledged that it would be hard to say for sure because of all the overgrowth.

“So much brush,” she said.

She said her daughter learned to ride her bike on the cemetery drive and called it “really nice, real peaceful.”

Patricia Haynes, who has lived next door to the cemetery for 45 years, was unaware of the vandalism. News of the damage upset her.

“So disrespectful,” she said. “It’s terrible.”

* * *


The tombstone of Schoal K. Freed, a Russian immigrant who arrived in Omaha in 1912. The Hebrew inscription says, “May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”

Kenneth Freed is not a softie.

He prides himself somewhat on his hard edges, his lived experiences of being a war correspondent, the way he’s fearless about rattling cages, his remove.

Then he saw the tipped-over gravestones of Uncle Joe and his dad. He was stunned.

“It takes a little bit out of you,” he said.

Particularly crushing to him was how vandals just tossed the American flag he had planted at his uncle’s grave. An American Jewish War Veterans Association plaque Freed had placed at his uncle’s grave was smashed under the fallen stone.

“It’s an affront. You feel like you’ve been attacked in some way,” he said. “And you feel a little bit hopeless. And then, like everybody else, you decide: Let’s fix this. We’re going to get it fixed.”

* * *


The damage at the cemetery owned by Temple Israel is estimated at $40,000.

Temple Israel has started a fund. The headstones will be set upright again.

And the synagogue is trying to come up with a bigger plan for cemetery upkeep in general. The cemeteries, after all, play a central role in the Jewish community. They are places that honor memory.

“A key principle of Judaism is kavod ha-met, which means honoring those who have died,” Rabbi Stoller wrote me in an email. “Every person buried in our cemetery has made his or her impact on the world in a uniquely profound way. Everyone buried there has a story.”

That story is holy, the rabbi said. Meaningful, he said.

And those stories will get told again.

World-Herald photographer Brendan Sullivan and researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.