The first Omaha Jewish Reunion this weekend will include lots of “mazel tovs” to celebrate a community that has helped shape Omaha.
Jewish attorneys, physicians, store owners, politicians, business leaders, educators, journalists, musicians, philanthropists and others have made impacts far beyond the walls of their synagogues. Imagine Omaha without the Blumkin and Simon families, who built, respectively, the Nebraska Furniture Mart and Omaha Steaks.
Two of Omaha’s most popular mayors were Jewish: Johnny Rosenblatt (1954-61) and Ed Zorinsky (1973-76), who also became Nebraska’s only Jewish U.S. senator (1976-1987).
The Brandeis department store and Hinky-Dinky grocery chains, among others, were Omaha icons for years, as was Rosenblatt Stadium. Borsheims Fine Jewelry was built by the Friedman family.
And today’s acclaimed Film Streams art-house movie theater and its Ruth Sokolof Theater were founded by a member of the younger generation, Rachel Jacobson.
“We have a wonderful Jewish community in Omaha,
very unique and very special,” said attorney Steven J. Riekes, who is credited with spearheading the reunion. “Omaha is a wonderful, thriving city. Let’s celebrate and tell people who we are, what we’ve accomplished and what we hope to be in the future.”
The Friday-through-Sunday reunion will include panel discussions on politics and the media, economic development, filmmaking, music and visual arts, as well as various bus tours — one playfully called “Bagels in Bagel.”
“Bagel” was the nickname for a neighborhood of mostly ranch-style houses just northwest of Memorial Park that became home to many Jewish families in the post-World War II decades.
It sat in the middle of a tight triangle of synagogues — Beth El (Conservative) at 49th and Farnam Streets, Beth Israel (Orthodox) at 1501 N. 52nd St. and Temple Israel (Reform) at 7023 Cass St.
All three congregations have since moved west and built new synagogues. But a Saturday bus tour will include box lunches from the Bagel Bin as participants “cruise the streets of Bagel on a trip down memory lane.”
The first Jews arrived in Omaha soon after the city’s founding in the mid-19th century. Today the community numbers about 5,500, and its history is intertwined with much of the rest of Omaha.
Henry Monsky, who became international president of the Jewish fraternal and service group B’nai B’rith, played an important role in helping Father Edward Flanagan start what became a famous Omaha home for youths.
Monsky, a lawyer, is widely believed to be the anonymous donor who loaned the Catholic priest $90 to pay the home’s first monthly rent. Boys Town today considers Monsky, who remained a supportive friend of Father Flanagan, to be one of its “founding fathers.”
In 1917, the Simons started a butcher shop called the Table Supply Meat Co., long before changing the name in 1966 to Omaha Steaks International.
In 1937, immigrant Rose Blumkin founded the Nebraska Furniture Mart. Today it calls itself the largest home furnishings store in North America and is still run by members of her family.
The Jewish community and the Jesuit-run Creighton University have enjoyed a long relationship. It includes the campus Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Natan and Hannah Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies began in 2009. UNO also administers the Frances and Sam Fried Holocaust and Genocide Education Fund.
A panel discussion scheduled for the reunion weekend refers to Creighton and UNO as “unlikely leaders in Israel and Jewish studies.”
It’s not that Jews in Omaha haven’t endured occasional discrimination, though Riekes, 74, said he has experienced very little anti-Semitism.
Rosenblatt, as a young semipro baseball player traveling the region, went by the name Johnny Ross to obscure his Jewish name.
His real surname later became synonymous with baseball in Omaha. And it was known nationally when the College World Series for decades was played at Rosenblatt Stadium.
In 1928, Otto Swanson, a Christian who headed the Nebraska Clothing Co., was approached by a fellow businessman who said a group was forming to promote a boycott of Jewish businesses.
Indignant, Swanson showed the man the door — and with others, soon formed the local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
In spite of gestures like that, Jews for years couldn’t join local country clubs. So they formed Highland Country Club southeast of 132nd and Pacific Streets.
It has since closed, and is home to the Sterling Ridge business and residential development.
Temple Israel opened its new synagogue there a year ago and has been the driving force behind an envisioned tri-faith campus that may eventually include a nearby church, a mosque and an interfaith building.
Beth El completed its new synagogue just northwest of 144th Street and West Dodge Road in 1991, and Beth Israel moved into its new house of worship at 12604 Pacific St. in 2004.
The Chabad House, of the Hasidic movement, sits on 120th Street south of Pacific Street. Four years ago, the oldest daughter of the Chabad rabbi and his wife was married in an elaborate public ceremony outdoors on 10th Street downtown, across from the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
A center of activity in Omaha that unites various congregations, and welcomes non-Jews as well, is the Jewish Community Center on 132nd Street just south of West Dodge Road. It features classes, theater, fitness areas and more, and is attached to the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home.
Marty Ricks, chief development officer for the Jewish Federation of Omaha, said about 60 percent of members at “The J” are non-Jewish.
An Omaha Central High graduate, Ricks worked in California for 30 years before returning to town in 1998.
“I’ve had the most professional and personal fulfillment of my life in the 16 years I’ve worked for this Jewish community,” he said. “People are generous not just with their dollars but also with their time.”
One noted local philanthropist is Jan Schneiderman of Omaha, who rose to president of the National Council of Jewish Women. Tonight in New York she will receive an award for her work from the Jewish Federations of North America.
Renee Corcoran, executive director of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, last week was sorting through photo archives to prepare an exhibit for the reunion. But she often hosts visitors.
“I give tours to people who come from all over,” said Corcoran, who worked 12 years for Zorinsky when he was mayor and senator. “They are so impressed that such a small Jewish community has as much as we have.”
The reunion hopes to attract people from around the country, and some will appear on panels. (For a list of all that is planned, go to OmahaJewishReunion.com.)
Tours are not strictly Jewish-related. One is billed as showing “how Omaha emerged from a frontier town to the progressive, cultural city it is today.”
Another is titled “Remembering Jewish North Omaha.” Joe Kirshenbaum will share stories of North 24th Street when it contained Jewish-owned stores as well as kosher meat, poultry and fish markets.
There’s a lot to celebrate. Among the weekend activities will be a wine-tasting at Village Pointe — no doubt amid toasts of “L’chaim.”
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