The first Jewish settlers, mostly merchants and businessmen, arrived in Omaha in 1856. Eleven men founded our congregation, the first in Nebraska, in January 1871. Following tradition, they immediately formed a burial society and established a cemetery in order to provide ritual services to the fledgling Jewish community.
The following summer, the first Confirmation service was held; and three of the seven confirmands became teachers the following year when the Sunday School was organized. For many decades, this was the only Jewish school in Omaha and served the entire Jewish community, regardless of affiliation or financial status.
Today, more than 725 families belong to Temple Israel. Our congregation continues to support and enhance its commitment to spirituality, education and tikkun olam, “Repairing the World.”
During the early 1860s, Jewish religious services in Omaha were conducted by laymen including Max Abrahams, grandfather of Milton R. Abrahams, who would become president of Temple Israel in 1942.
In 1871, the Congregation of Israel was founded and elected Meyer Hellman president. A fund-raising campaign and search for a building lot and a rabbi were organized. Recognizing the need for a Jewish burial ground, five acres for a cemetery at 42nd and Redick were purchased and deeded to the congregation.
During the summer and fall of 1871, Reverend Alexander Rosenspitz served the congregation and conducted the first Confirmation Service for a class of seven. The next year, a short-lived Sunday School was organized. Articles of incorporation were filed with the Douglas County Clerk in 1873.
In 1878, the Reverend David Stern ministered to the 20-member congregation for eight months followed by Reverend H. Saft who served for a few months in 1883. Enthusiasm and dedication kept the tiny congregation viable. But all money raised was designated for a building leaving little for a rabbi’s salary. Finally, a lot was purchased at 23rd and Harney for $4,000.
Reverend George Harfield was hired as rabbi in 1883 and on September 18, 1884, the 50-member congregation dedicated the first synagogue in Nebraska. It had been built for $4,500.
After a testy relationship, Reverend Harfield was dismissed by the Board which engaged N. I. Benson from 1885 to 1889. Financial problems continued and there was friction among members, who ranged from Reform to Orthodox, on the subject of religious practices. The Board eventually moved to “have hats off during services except such as may have conscientious scruples on the subject,” and women were no longer separated from men. Membership increased to 120, and the Sunday School was reopened.
In 1889, the congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. William Rosenau became the first graduate of Hebrew Union College to occupy the pulpit here. The congregation struggled with how to run a solvent Sunday School whose enrollment was nearly half children of non-members. Finally, the Board decided to ask for voluntary contributions instead of tuition fees.
Rabbi Rosenau stayed until 1892 when he became spiritual guide of a Baltimore Temple where he rose to become one of the leaders in the American Reform Movement.
Rabbi Leo Franklin was hired by Temple Israel to replace Rabbi Rosenau. The congregation had a warm relationship with Rabbi Franklin, the youngest graduate in the history of Hebrew Union College at the time. However, the depression of the 1890s brought with it a decrease in membership and an increase in unpaid dues. The board wasn’t able to adequately compensate Rabbi Franklin for his services.
After marrying the daughter of one of Temple’s early presidents, Rabbi Franklin resigned in 1898 and moved to Detroit. Under his successor, Rabbi Abram Simon, Temple began to prosper financially due to an increase in pew rent.
Rabbi Simon earned a prominent national reputation due to his innovative ideas on Jewish education and was elected rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1903. Regretfully, Temple released him from his contract.
The following year, Dr. Frederick Cohn from Fort Wayne, Indiana, was elected to succeed Rabbi Simon. Dr. Cohn served the congregation for the next 30 years during the age of “enlightened rationalism,” presenting a scientific, analytical approach to religion. He was in great demand by the secular community as a lecturer presenting himself as a modern, well-educated, cultured member of society. This was a new image for the majority of the public.
Dr. Cohn helped organize and lead the celebration marking the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in America which included a grand ball at the Metropolitan Club.
During his tenure, Temple moved to 29th and Jackson. The cornerstone was laid on June 2, 1907, following three days of dedication services and sermons by speakers from St. Paul, Sioux City, Lincoln, Des Moines, and St. Louis. The gold-domed building was proclaimed to be one of the most elegant in the city.
Increasing membership and decreasing the mortgage remained challenges for the congregation. Not until 1913 was the practice of renting pews discontinued. In the meantime, unoccupied pews were opened to the public 20 minutes after services began.
During World War I, Sisterhood sold Liberty Bonds and formed an auxiliary of the Red Cross appealing for funds for “Jewish War Sufferers.” An American flag hung over the ark during the war with gold stars for each young man in the service.
In May 1918, the Park Avenue Temple observed its tenth anniversary which emphasized religion and patriotism and honored Rabbi Cohn for his years of dedicated service.
Temple celebrated its 50th anniversary in November 1921. Rabbis Rosenau, Franklin and Simon returned for the event to share in the pride of the congregation’s growth which had expanded to 250 members.
In 1926, land adjoining Temple’s property was purchased to build the religious school addition. According to the Omaha World-Herald, the three-story high addition would “contain nine large airy rooms, with specially arranged ventilators … Each room will be equipped with its own blackboard, will have flat-arm chairs, so the children can take notes, as well as … other conveniences.”
Omaha’s Jewish community also built its first Jewish Community Center at 20th and Dodge Streets in 1926 at a cost of $400,000. Despite the adverse effects of the Depression, Rabbi David Wice, a young graduate of Hebrew Union College was hired in 1933 to assist Dr. Cohn during the High Holy Days. However, Rabbi Wice charmed the congregation and was retained following the High Holy Days. The board stipulated, however, that they would only be able to pay him $150 a month.
During Rabbi Wice’s tenure, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations recommended that Reform congregations adopt the use of Jewish music during worship services, sing traditional Jewish hymns, allow laymen to participate, and permit the use of a cantor with the choir. In 1937, Charles Rosenstock became a Bar Mitzvah in the first such ceremony conducted at Temple since the 1880s. There was also a renewed interest in adult education at Temple. Participation in religious life was motivated during the 1930s by the menace of Hitler’s drive to power in Germany and waves of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Rabbi Wice and his wife were instrumental in organizing a Supper Club for young couples to socialize. The Wices were also popular hosts for young single adults. Later, Rabbi Wice brought Max Scheuermann to Omaha to serve as Hebrew instructor and choir director.
As refugees began to arrive from European persecution, the congregation offered them free memberships and prepared for more immigrants as war seemed imminent.
Rabbi Wice resigned to accept the pulpit of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Newark, New Jersey. He was succeeded by Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld of Hamilton, Ohio, in 1942.
In 1942, Rabbi Lelyveld was installed as Temple Israel’s 11th rabbi by Rabbi David Philipson who was then the oldest living rabbi in the United States and who had preached at the 1908 dedication of the Park Avenue Temple. A confirmed pacifist, Rabbi Lelyveld preached, taught and acted in accordance with his beliefs throughout his tenure which coincided with World War II. He subsequently rose to international prominence as a humanitarian.
As the congregation grew to 300 members, there were growing numbers serving in the armed forces. In 1943, Barbara Trustin Taxman became the first girl at Temple to become a Bat Mitzvah. The following year, Confirmation age was raised to tenth grade.
In 1944, Rabbi Lelyveld resigned to become a director for the Zionist Organization of America. Temple’s next rabbi, Lou Silberman of Dallas, Texas, presided over the congregation’s Diamond Jubilee in 1945. Rabbis Leo Franklin, David Wice, and Lelyveld all returned for the celebration.
William Bennett, Temple’s organist for 40 years, retired in 1945 and was followed by Esther DuBoff. The same year, Ida Gitlin was named musical director.
Nearly four decades had passed since the Park Avenue building was dedicated. With the Jewish population of Omaha shifting westward and the existing building requiring an increasing number of major repairs, Milton Livingston was named building fund chair in 1946. Paul Blotcky took on the job of site chair. However, resettlement of Holocaust survivors and supporting efforts to establish the State of Israel took precedence over raising funds for a new building.
But in 1951, 27 acres between 69th and 72nd and Cass Streets were purchased after the Park Avenue Temple was sold to St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church. With Louis Lipp as president, the congregation embarked on a $400,000 building fund drive.
Rabbi Silberman resigned to become Hillel Professor of Jewish Thought and Literature at Vanderbilt University and was succeeded by Rabbi Sidney H. Brooks of Springfield, Ohio, in 1952. Due to Rabbi Brooks’ innovative leadership and popularity, the congregation grew to 600 members which included 2,000 congregants.
In May 1953, Rabbi Brooks conducted the last service in the Park Avenue building. Operating from the Jewish Community Center for the next year, the congregation observed High Holy Day services at the Masonic Temple. Upon moving into the new Temple, The Jewish Press described it as “contemporary in design and features traditional symbols in a modern motif … it has a sanctuary seating 300, a social hall seating 500, 11 classrooms and a kitchen … Cost of the building was $500,000.”
Mervin Lemmerman was hired as the first fulltime director of education followed by Maury Schwartz from 1956 to 1962. Enrollment in religious school mushroomed, and it became obvious that classroom space was inadequate.
Much of the growth and vitality of the religious school can be attributed to Rabbi Sidney Brooks who also instituted a Sabbath discussion series for adults, a variety of adult education courses and well-attended question and answer sessions.
Spurred by a $75,000 grant from the Milton and Corinne Livingston Foundation, funds were raised and a new religious school wing was built under the leadership of Millard Krasne in 1962.
Cantor Manfred Kuttner, from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, joined the staff in 1961 as the first fulltime cantor. He was director of music, the Hebrew teacher and director of education. Rabbi Lawrence Rubenstein, Temple’s first assistant rabbi, became director of education when he arrived in 1965. To accommodate the growing congregation, two evening services were conducted on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.
Also in 1965, the Livingston Foundation donated the cost of adding a chapel which is named in the Livingstons’ honor. A permanent heritage case was placed in the foyer. In 1967, the main sanctuary was refurbished.
Between 1966 and 1976, the Couples Club hosted numerous functions, including speakers, working at Children’s Hospital’s gift shop on Christmas and a family retreat. In 1971, a Social Concern Committee was formed, and a new assistant rabbi, Barry Weinstein, was hired.
In 1972, the congregation and community grieved upon the death of Cantor Kuttner. At Temple’s first public school teachers Shabbat in 1972, 700 people attended.
Never to be forgotten in the memories of all who lived in Omaha on May 6, 1975, a tornado ripped through the city destroying everything in its path. Rabbi and Mrs. Brooks were rehearsing with 22 confirmation students when the sirens sounded. Temple sustained massive damage, but thanks to Rabbi Brook’s instincts, not a single serious injury was inflicted on the group huddled in a basement room. For 11 months, worship services were conducted at the Jewish Community Center or Boys Town.
At the end of 1976, the cost of adding a conference center was donated by Ella and Hymie Milder in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. Sisterhood introduced the Interfaith Tea that year.
Grade level Shabbats began in 1977, the same year Cantor Gail Posner Karp joined Temple’s clergy. In 1978, she organized a volunteer adult choir.
Temple Outreach began in 1981 when Ann and Arnie Weitz and Jan and Bob Egermayer organized an informal evening of socializing for more than 20 couples followed later by classes and programs on interfaith marriage.
1982 to 2006
In the last ten years of his rabbinate, Rabbi Sidney Brooks continued to explore how Reform Judaism grapples with modernity. His wide-ranging sermons and Tidings columns covered the gamut from Jewish marriage encounter and the Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois, to John Lennon’s murder and the proposed Human Life Amendments. He also reached out to Jews in small towns by traveling around the state with congregant Mel Epstein to give lectures and teach.
The 1980s were a period of transition for the congregation. Associate Rabbi Barry Weinstein concluded his 12 years of service in 1983 followed by Rabbi Brooks’ retirement in 1985 after 33 years on the pulpit of Temple Israel. Rabbi Stephan Barack served from 1985 to 1988. Current Rabbi Aryeh Azriel was hired in 1988 after serving as a rabbi in Baltimore, Maryland.
Temple has enjoyed the musicianship and musical leadership of several cantors over the past 25 years. Harold (Hal) Firestone led worship from 1980 to 1990, followed by Karen Webber Gilat from 1990 to 1994, Erik Contzius from 1995 to 1998, and Jennifer Blum from 1998 to 2001. Current Cantor Wendy Shermet joined the clergy in 2001. To the delight of the community, Cantor Shermet hosted Cantors Webber Gilat, Contzius and Blum for the Four Cantors Concert in April 2002.
Temple Israel has continued to explore innovative ways to build a stronger community. Participating in a national initiative, known as Synagogue 2000, enabled the congregation to re-examine itself in order to be more welcoming, inclusive and dynamic.
During Rabbi Azriel’s tenure, Temple added Tot Shabbat services, adult B’nai Mitzvah classes, a Thanksgiving Interfaith Service in partnership with several Omaha churches, Mitzvah Day, and Family School which brings parents and children together to study Hebrew and Jewish, history and texts.
Following in the tradition set down by Rabbi Brooks, the congregation has continued to do the work of tikkum olam — repairing the world. The Social Justice Community has engaged in Black/Jewish dialogue, outreach to Lothrop and Castelar Elementary Schools in North and South Omaha, and provided numerous educational forums on everything from health care policy to LGBT rights. In 2003, the Middle/High School Social Justice Club won the Irving J. Fain Social Justice Action Award, a national honor bestowed by the Union for Reform Judaism.
Assistant Rabbis Dan Fink (1992-1994), Debbie Stiel (1994-2002), Craig Marantz (2002-2006) and Eric Linder (2006-2012) shared pulpit and education duties with Rabbi Azriel. Rabbi Josh Brown, hired in 2012, currently fills that position. With the addition of the Hermene Zweiback Center for Lifelong Jewish Learning in 1999, the clergy enjoyed new opportunities to expand Temple’s adult education course offerings and to bring leading Jewish scholars, thinkers and personalities to teach the congregation. In 2003, Rabbi Azriel led a trip to Spain to explore its Jewish heritage as part of a year of studying Sephardic Jewry. At the Reform Movement’s Biennial in November 2003, Temple Israel was one of ten congregations across the country to be selected for the Congregation of Learners Award.
2006 to Present
In 2006 Temple Israel President Dr. Michael Walts spearheaded the drive to begin planning for a new Temple Israel building even further west, as the congregation continues to grow and migrate. President John Lehr led the Capital and Endowment Campaign and in 2011 Temple Israel purchased 14 acres in the new Sterling Ridge development at 132nd and Pacific streets, formerly home to Highland Country Club. Construction took place over the next few years and on August 25, 2013, congregants paraded one of the Torah Scrolls from Cass Street to their new home at Sterling Ridge.