As construction began on Temple Israel’s new home, Social Justice Committee Chair Dan Gilbert started thinking of ways the congregation could give back to the Omaha community.

“One of the things we wanted to do on the Social Justice Committee was identify a local issue that lots of people at congregation could connect with,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert decided he wanted a project that would raise awareness of hunger and housing issues in Omaha. With Temple Israel receiving a new home, he thought it would be appropriate for the congregation to help build a home for others.

Enter Habitat for Humanity.

Temple Israel had worked with Habitat for Humanity a number of years ago, Gilbert said, but that partnership fell by the wayside for reasons unknown to him. Gilbert thought it was an important organization and, in 2010, revived the relationship between Temple Israel and Habitat for Humanity.

“I helped organize a couple of one day activities with Habitat to kind of try out and see if there was interest in the congregation in doing more,” Gilbert said.

When congregants did express interest in continued support of Habitat for Humanity projects, Gilbert looked into other ways the Temple Israel community could contribute, which led to Temple Israel pledging to join the Carpenter’s Crew coalition, a group of 12 religious institutions that are responsible for an entire build project.

“We’re in the spirit of building right now,” Gilbert said, “and so this is one way to contribute to building in our community.”

With the construction scheduled to begin in mid-August, Temple Israel, along with the other religious organizations, is asking for volunteers to sign up for weekend shifts through November to help build a new house in North Omaha near 30th Street and Sorensen Parkway.

Gilbert points out that no experience is necessary to volunteer. The construction that does require skilled labor, such as pouring the foundation and hooking up the electricity, will be handled by professionals, but volunteers ages 16 and older will handle the rest.

According to its website, the Omaha chapter of Habitat for Humanity has built or renovated more than 300 houses for local families. Families who move into the houses are given a zero interest loan that must be paid back, and family members are required to put in 350 hours of “sweat equity,” basically they have to volunteer to work in the community, either on their own home or on a different construction project.

Volunteering within the community is important to Gilbert, not only as a member of Temple Israel, but as a human being.

“This isn’t just an obligation to do tikkun olam or an obligation to repair the world, to make the world better, this is a real opportunity to transform the lives of a family that lives here and contributes here,” Gilbert said. “If we can make an impact on one family … the most important thing we can do is give them a stabilizing influence. That’s a positive for not just their family but for the entire community.”

Gilbert said that helping to build this house is an opportunity to actually see “the fruits of our labor and our money.

“It’s important to have an example, an actual thing that people from our temple can see that we helped play a part in,” Gilbert said.

Not everyone is cut out to do physical labor, however. Gilbert said that in addition to unskilled laborers, the build project is also in need of donated funds, household items and lunch/snacks for the workers. Temple Israel has also pledged to raise $5,000 from its members to go toward not only the construction costs, but the cost of furnishing the house as well.

“It’s the difference between a house and a home,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert sees giving back to the community with organizations like Habitat for Humanity as not only a positive example for his children, but also an important reflection of his faith.

“Judaism is about action and it’s about people,” Gilbert said. “One of the reasons that I connect with Reform Judaism in particular and feel strongly about being Jewish is the commandment to do mitzvot. It’s not the commandment to read mitzvot and think about mitzvot or be reflective about mitzvot, the commandment is to do mitzvot.”

Temple Israel President Sally Kaplan announced at the June board meeting that the annual High Holiday appeal would be a request for support of this project. It is a tradition during the season of awe to do mitzvot and President Kaplan believes this project is a perfect fit as Temple Israel builds its new home.

Temple Israel members who would like to volunteer are encouraged to sign up online at the Temple Israel website, or contact Dan Gilbert via email at or by phone, (402) 203-2894.