A History of North Omaha’s Jewish Community

The Jewish community in North Omaha was tied together with the establishment and growth of the community for a century. As I read personal accounts of growing up in North Omaha written by very old people in the 1980s, it became obvious people loved the area. However, it also became obvious why the Jewish community felt they needed to leave.

 


Origins of a Community

From the 1860s through the 1960s, North Omaha was home to a lot of Omaha’s Jewish community. North 24th Street was the lifeblood of the community. Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, family homes and other Jewish institutions were packed throughout the Near North Side, Kountze Place, North 16th, and other North Omaha neighborhoods. Many of these places were located along North 24th, from Dodge to Ames Avenue.

The Jewish people in North Omaha came from throughout Europe, including Germany, Bohemia, Russia, Romania, Poland and Hungary. Today, Omaha’s Jewish community is spread throughout the city, and no synagogues or shuls are left in North Omaha. There are Jewish cemeteries here though, and a lot of history. Here’s a little bit of it.

I had to learn some words in order to write this article. If you’re not Jewish, you might want to learn these words:

  • Beth – Hebrew word meaning “house”, used sometimes for a Jewish house of worship.
  • Kosher – Literally means proper or correct, and describes food that is okay to eat under Jewish dietary laws.
  • Shul – Yiddish term for a Jewish house of worship, used primarily by Orthodox Jews.
  • Synagogue – The most widely accepted term for a Jewish house of worship.

 

This is the B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom at 1111 North 24th Street in 1921, courtesy of the Durham Museum.


Building Omaha’s Near North Side

The Near North Side neighborhood grew slowly at first. Starting in the 1860s, it crept northward from the city limit at present-day Cuming Street and lurched toward Lake Street.

As the neighborhood grew, a lot of different immigrant nationalities clustered there. In the Near North Side neighborhood, there was a Scandinavian area (Little Stockholm), an Irish area (Gophertown), and an Irish neighborhood, among others. The Jewish community of the city tended to cluster in this neighborhood, too. According to Jewish records, in the 1870s and 1880s a large number of Hungarian and German Jews moved into North Omaha.

By the 1880s, the Jewish community across Omaha was growing rapidly.  Successful businessmen quickly moved beyond the smallish houses that originally sat throughout Omaha’s North Downtown, and moved into the big new homes being built throughout the Near North Side. When Herman Kountze opened his new suburb to the north of Lake Street, middle and upper class Jewish families were some of the first to have fine homes built in Kountze Place.

 

This is the Beth Hamedresh Ados Yeshuren Congregation at 25th and Seward in 1925.


Businesses

They built homes there because many Jewish businesspeople opened stores along North 24th Street, starting at Dodge and extending northward as North Omaha grew. Along with other ethnic and national group, Jewish-owned groceries, bakeries, kosher meat, poultry and fish markets, clothing, drug, hardware and shoe stores lined every major street in North Omaha. Other businesses included hucksters, peddlers, and salesmen, all of which were differentiated in Omaha. Jewish immigrants in North Omaha also worked in packing houses, smelters, junkyards and on the railroads.

 

This is the Micklin Lumber Yard, owned by a family in North Omaha’s Jewish community. Planing and other wordworking was done on the first floor, and storage was on the second. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the 24th and Lake Historic District.

Some of the specific businesses along North 24th Street included Sam Freid and Iz Kuklin’s Kosher Meat Market; Altschuler’s Mattress Manufacturing; Spiegal’s Junk Yard; Wolk the Tailor and Wolk the Barber; Hans Dansky’s Garage; Siref’s Harness Shop; Sore’s Upholstery; Goldstein’s Confectionary; Micklin Lumber Yard; Sol Lewis Record Shop; Murwitz the Photographer; Silinsky Furniture; and Levine Furniture. Forbes Bakery was started by Isadore Forbes on North 24th and Lake Streets, too.

 

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol was a synagogue once located in North Omaha on North 19th Street, being demolished in the 1950s.

 


Laying the Foundation

Between 1880 and 1920, the Near North Side boomed in growth. The neighborhoods in-filled with multi-family homes, first focusing on “St. Louis flats” (apartments above stores) and then including rowhouses, duplexes, fourplexes, and after 1900, apartments buildings. According to one personal history I read, there was a “good side” of the neighborhood, and a different side.

 


Different Sides of the Neighborhood

The “good side” was located between present-day Hamilton Street and Lake Street, from N. 24th to 30th Street. Professional people and business owners lived in the this neighborhood, and in time they moved further north into Kountze Place, as well. The other part of the neighborhood lived from Cuming to Lake, N. 24th to N. 16th. This is where immigrants moved to get started, and where working class people owned their homes.

Starting in the early 1880s, Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants started flooding into North Omaha. The neighborhood they lived in was between Kellom and Lake Schools, and was referred to as Little Russia. Escaping persecution at home, these Russians came to Omaha for many reasons, including its well-established Jewish community.

Among them was a child named Tillie Olsen. After going to Lake School and leaving Omaha High School early, she was a worker and labor organizer in the 1930s in South Omaha’s meatpacking industry, organizing the United Packinghouse Workers of America in the area. Influenced by her parents’ Jewish socialist leanings and North Omaha, she was an activist all her life. Using her experiences, Olsen wrote highly influential novels and some nonfiction books. She’s regarded as one of the most important Jewish authors of the century.

In July 1914 the Omaha Bee announced a new “branch library station” that would offer books in Yiddish in at unnamed drug store on North 24th Street, which was called “a center of Jewish population.”

By the end of World War I, North 24th was packed with Jewish businesses. Even after the neighborhood was redlined by the 1920s, Jewish business owners maintained their businesses throughout the neighborhood.

This is the original Jewish Old People’s Home, located at 2504 Charles Street.

Jewish Institutions in North Omaha

In 1952, B’nai Israel moved to 1502 N. 52nd Street and has been called Beth Israel since. They had founded their cemetery in North Omaha in 1872. Called Pleasant Hill Cemetery, its located at 6412 North 42nd Street. The Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol, aka “The Litvsche Shul”, was built in 1883.

Golden Hill Cemetery was founded by Chevra B’nai Israel Adas Russia in 1888. Located at 5109 North 42nd Street, its one of the oldest cemeteries in Omaha. In 1909, B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom was a Hungarian congregation that moved several times, including to North 25th and Seward, and then to 6412 North 42nd Street.

 

This house, located at 1512 North 25th Street, was used as a ritual bath house for the Jewish Old Folks’ Home.

B’nai Jacob – Adas Yeshuron, aka “The Kapulier Shul”, was incorporated on North 19th Street in 1909. Soon after they built a new synagogue at North 24th and Nicholas. In 1948, the City of Omaha bought the land where their synagogue was and the congregation moved their building to 3028 Cuming Street.

Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshurun merged with B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom to form B’nai Jacob Adas Yeshurun in 1952, keeping the nickname “The Kapulier Shul”. After staying at their Cuming Street address for more than 30 years, they closed in 1985.

 


Wise Memorial Hospital

The first Wise Memorial Hospital was opened in North Omaha in 1901. Named for Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, founder of American Reform Judaism, it was located in a small frame building constructed at 3208 Sherman Avenue in 1901. In 1902, Wise Hospital moved to the former J.J. Brown estate in North Omaha at 2225 Sherman Avenue. The hospital stayed there until 1908, when it moved to South Omaha. In 1917, the Jewish Old People’s Home was founded at 2504 Charles.

The second Wise Memorial Hospital, located in North Omaha along North 16th Street.

Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshuran

In 1922, Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshuran moved to North 25th and Seward Streets. The structure was designed in a “Modern American” style symmetrical fashion all the way around with more attention given to the main façade on the West side. Facing North 25th, this side has two piers with copper tops which extend beyond the true roof line and face an original cobblestone road. This building was first designated a historic structure in 1939, despite being constructed only 21 years earlier, 1918. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, created jobs for people during the Great Depression.  This program was the only thing in place to document historic structures at the time. The WPA determined the historical significance of the building in 1939.

This is the interior of the Shaare Zion Synagogue on North 20th Street.

In 1926, the Jewish community established Shaare Zion at 1821 North 20th Street. In 1939, they moved to 1552 N. 19th Street and become known as the “the Riekes Shul” in honor of their benefactor. In 1952, Shaare Zion moved to 1522 Douglas Street.

 


Leaving North Omaha

Starting in the early 1950s, North Omaha started integrating. Afraid of living next to African Americans, white flight set in and many people across the community moved to west Omaha. Institutions that had been key to the community had been closing or moving away for several decades, including the University of Omaha (1938), the Covenant Evangelical Hospital (1937), and others. With the closure and leaving of North Omaha’s synagogues and other Jewish institutions, the Jewish community started leaving the area. However, many kept their businesses along North 24th Street through the following decades.

In the 1960s, several riots ravished the businesses along North 24th Street and dotted across the Near North Side neighborhood. After many Jewish-owned businesses were looted, burnt and destroyed, North Omaha’s Jewish people left from the neighborhood permanently. North Omaha has never been the same.

One of the things my research has shown me is that North Omaha was never a majority Jewish neighborhood. The census numbers show that first people to build between Cumings and Lake were English, Swedish, Italians, Germans and Poles. African Americans moved to the near north side from the downtown area between 1880 and 1900, which was when the Jewish started moving in.
From my estimates based on census data, in the next forty years, the Jewish population in North Omaha only ever totaled 20% of all people living there. By 1950, they began moving to West Omaha.

I can’t find any solid numbers on it, but when reviewing the last names on my North 24th Street business directory, about 3/4 of them are Jewish. I think that’s where the real tension came: Jewish people never actually had a majority population in the community but controlled the vast majority of businesses. Jewish business owners in North Onaha hired African Americans, but African Americans didn’t own a majority of the businesses by the time they lived in the majority of the community, around 1960.

I think that caused the fires to burn, and still causes a rift in the community today. The Jewish people are gone, but their legacy in the community is not.

THAT is Omaha history.

A scion of the powerful Brandeis family, Emil died on the Titantic in 1912.


Jewish North Omaha Historical Tour

Synagogues and Shuls

  • Shaare Zion Synagogue aka the “Riekes Shul”, 1821 North 20th Street, 1552 N. 19th Street, 1522 Douglas Street
  • B’nai Jacob Adas Yeshurun, aka the “Kapulier Shul”, 1521 North 21st Street, 3028 Cuming Street
  • Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshurun, North 19th Street (Founded in 1883)
  • Chevra B’nai Israel Adas Russia (Founded in 1886)
  • B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom, 1111 North 24th Street, 25th and Seward, 6412 N. 42nd Street
  • Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol, aka the “Litvsche Shul”, 723 North 19th Street
  • B’nai Israel, 1502 N. 52nd Street (Founded in 1868)
  • Congregation Chov’ve Zio (Founded in 1902)
  • Midrash Haggodol, aka Chevra Israel (Founded in 1886)
  • “Hungarian Congregation” (Founded in 1882)

Other Sites

  • Jewish Old People’s Home, 2504 Charles Street.
  • Jewish Old Folks’ Home ritual bathhouse, 1512 North 25th Street
  • First Wise Memorial Hospital, 3208 Sherman Avenue, 2225 Sherman Avenue (Founded in 1898)
  • Pleasant Hill Cemetery, 6412 North 42nd Street (Established in 1872)
  • Golden Hill Cemetery, 5109 North 42nd Street
  • Temple Isreal Cemetery, 6412 North 42 Street

Jewish Businesses

  • Sam Freid and Iz Kuklin’s Kosher Meat Market, 1513 North 24th Street
  • Forbes Bakery, 2711 North 24th Street
  • Silver Star Confectionery, 1604 North 24th Street
  • Altschuler’s Mattress Manufacturing
  • Spiegal’s Junk Yard
  • Wolk the Tailor, 1506 North 24th Street
  • Wolk the Barber, 1508 North 24th Street
  • Hans Dansky’s Garage
  • Siref’s Harness Shop
  • Sore’s Upholstery
  • Goldstein’s Confectionary
  • Nicklin Lumber Yard
  • Sol Lewis Record Shop
  • Murwitz the Photographer
  • Silinsky Furniture
  • Levine Furniture
  • Milton Mayper Clothing, 1412 North 24th Street
  • Jewish Library


Related Content

Elsewhere Online

 


BONUS PICS!

The Beth Hamedrosh Hogodel Synagogue at 723 North 19th Street in 1922, courtesy of the Durham Museum.
This building served as B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom for some period of time. It stands today at N. 25th and Seward.

 

 

Omaha History Mystery Synagogue

This synagogue was located in Omaha. Where in the city was it?

 

B’nai Jacob – Adas Yeshuron, 24th and Nicholas, North Omaha, Nebraska
On December 23, 1948, this article ran in the newspaper. Its the story of how B’nai Jacob – Adas Yeshuron moved their building from N. 24th and Nicholas to 3022 Cuming Street, where the building is located today. Its been repurposed as a Christian church. The North 24th Street land was initially slated by the City of Omaha to be used as a park; now its empty.

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