, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Shown above are five synagogues that used to be located north of Dodge in Omaha’s Near North Side. From upper left, they include the former Beth Hamedrosh Adas Jeshurun synagogue at 2531 Seward Street, B’nai Jacob at 1109 North 24th Street, B’nai Jacob Adas Yeshurun at 3028 Cuming Street, Shaare Zion Synagogue at 1821 North 20th Street, and; Beth Hamedrosh Hogodel Synagogue at 719 North 19th Street.

Starting in the 1860s, North Omaha was home to most of Omaha’s Jewish community for more than 50 years, and had remnants for another 50 years. The Jewish community of Omaha accumulated economic and social power collectively within a few decades of arriving, and by the 1890s many wealthy Jews owned businesses, real estate, and other assets in North Omaha, downtown Omaha, and South Omaha. Aiming to become a magnet for Jewish immigration in the United States between the 1890s and 1910s, Omaha’s Jewish community brought Jews to the city who were escaping persecution and antisemitism throughout Europe. Their numbers and influence grew in North Omaha, where most Jews lived. There were many working class Jewish families and low-income Jews living in North Omaha, too.

The Near North Side became the predominant Jewish neighborhood in Omaha starting in 1905, and stayed that way until white flight began in 1920. During that time the Jewish population of Omaha doubled, and North 24th Street became the lifeblood of the population. Eventually, Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, family homes and other Jewish institutions were located throughout other neighborhoods in North Omaha, too, 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 though, along with a former synagogue, lots of buildings and homes built by Jews, and the historic locations of Jewish institutions. Omaha itself still has many vestiges of antisemitism, too.

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


Arriving in Omaha

This is North Omaha Chronicles “How Do We Remember People Long Gone”, 12-22-19. Copyright 2019 Adam Fletcher Sasse. All rights reserved.

When Omaha was informally established in 1854, each of the city’s founders was apparently white, from an Anglo-Saxon background, and if they were religious, from a Protestant denomination – although there were a few Catholics, too.

The Omaha Claim Club was an ethnic segregation group that said they were out to keep “claim jumpers” and other people from this new city on the Plains. However, stories of their “enforcement” activities show did this by routinely targeting Irish, Italians, and others who weren’t accepted as white from settling in Omaha. Although the group didn’t last more than three years, their tactics focusing on mob violence and routine intimidation continued long beyond the formal existence of the group.

Arriving in 1867, brothers Max Meyer and Julius Meyer were among the first Jewish settlers in Omaha. The owners of a popular store in downtown Omaha, they helped other Jews emigrate to Omaha and were involved in the establishment of the first synagogue in the city in 1871. Julius Meyer was a popular trader with several local tribes, acting as an interpreter and representing tribes in several ways throughout the years. Max opened an early opera house and exposition building in Omaha, and Julius was a founder of the Omaha Musical Union.

Despite their successes and contributions to the larger life of Omaha though, Jews and even the Meyer brothers experienced antisemitism starting in those early years. Anti-Jewish attitudes were cultivated among Omaha’s settlers and early residents, and they deepened throughout the decades.

Between 1881 and 1950, thousands of Ashkenazi Jews immigrated the Meyers from Eastern Europe to Omaha fleeing pogroms and widespread poverty. At it’s absolute largest, the city’s Jewish population probably didn’t grow larger than 15,000 residents.


Building the Near North Side

This is an 8th grade classroom at Lake School in North Omaha in 1914.
This is an 8th grade classroom at Lake School in North Omaha in 1914. This pic includes both Black students and Jewish students who attended the school.

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 Hungarians including Jews 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.

The neighborhood had more than 15 synagogues and shuls, as well as a Jewish Retirement Home, a traditional bath, and many Jewish businesses lining North 24th Street and beyond.


Jewish Businesses in the Near North Side

Micklin Lumber Building, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the Micklin Lumber Yard, owned by a family in North Omaha’s Jewish community. Planing and other woodworking 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.

The earliest Jewish business people were salesmen pushing carts through neighborhoods selling household wares. Later, North Omaha’s Jewish businesses included Jewish mom-and-pop grocery stores, butcher shops, fish markets, bakeries, cafes, delis; hardware, appliance, clothing, shoe and department stores; tailor shops, repair shops, pawn shops, barber shops, beauty shops; ice houses, a junk yard, a lumber yard. Drug stores, doctors offices; laundries, and dry cleaners. Many of the dance halls, night clubs, bars, billiard parlors, movie theaters in North Omaha were Jewish-owned, too.

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.

There were several kosher markets in North Omaha too, including ones owned by the Shukerts, Diamonds, Binstein and Glass families. The Nebraska Kosher Market was one, too.

Jews owned the vast majority of grocery stores in North Omaha for several decades. Starting their work pushing carts filled with fruits and vegetables, they opened the first brick-and-mortar groceries in many WASP neighborhoods throughout the community, including Bedford Place, Miller Park, Minne Lusa and other areas. Sam Gendelman’s Fort Street Grocery was one of these, operating for more than 25 years in the Miller Park neighborhood.

The Near North Side was a diverse tapestry of Omaha immigrants and African Americans, with block-by-block segregation keeping families separate while the larger neighborhood was woven together. The neighborhood institutions that were truly integrated were primarily schools and parks, which between the 1910s and 1940s had Black, Jewish, eastern European, and Italian children attending them. Some businesses catered to people of all races, including grocery stores, department stores, and a few other places. However, housing, social clubs, many businesses, and of course, faith communities were severely segregated.

Within North Omaha, Jewish businesses served many purposes.

The Omaha World-Herald reported that dozens of Jewish families were affected by the tornado, like the entire family of Nathan Krinsky, including the parents and five children, dead. The newspaper wrote,

“…many of these families were left penniless without food, clothing or shelter and in destitute circumstances and not infrequently illness from exposure and injuries sustained in the storm, followed with the result that the already great misfortunes were increased many fold.”

Omaha Morning Bee, March 23, 1913

Immediately after the tornado, a Jewish relief station was set up at 1604 North 24th Street in the H. Freidman’s clothing store after the Easter Sunday tornado. According to the Omaha Bee, “…many of the Jewish families have not a good speaking knowledge of the English language. The Jewish people thought it best to take care of these unfortunates with the aid of those who can communicate easily with them.” The Jewish Relief Committee was made of representatives from each of the synagogues in the city. According to one source, the committee agreed to cooperate with the citywide relief committee, but, as one member of the Jewish committee said,

“We always care for our own people.”

Omaha Morning Bee, March 26, 1913

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

Mushkin and Epstein Kosher Market, 1415 North 24th Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the Mushkin and Epstein Kosher Market at 1415 North 24th Street.

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. Starting in 1905, the Omaha World-Herald regularly wrote about plans by citywide Russian Relief Society to bring Russian Jews to Omaha to escape the pogroms there.

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.


Jewish Institutions in North Omaha

These are several Jewish institutions that used to be in North Omaha. From left, they are Jewish Old Peoples’ Home ritual bathhouse at 1512 North 25th Street; Jewish Old People’s Home at 2504 Charles Street; Jewish Funeral Home at 1912 Cuming Street, and; Louis Friedman Jewish Funeral Home at 4415 Cuming Street.

In 1952, B’nai Israel moved to 1502 N. 52nd Street and has been called Beth Israel since. They had founded the first Jewish 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 22nd and Cuming Street and to 6412 North 42nd Street.

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. They merged with Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshurun and worshipped together at 2531 Seward Street. In 1948, the City of Omaha bought the land where their synagogue was and the congregation moved their building to 3028 Cuming Street, and both congregations moved to that location.

In 1916, Beth Hamedrosh Adas Jeshurun was organized by members from B’nai Israel because they lived too far from that synagogue to walk to Sabbath and holiday services. After buying a house at North 25th and Seward in 1920, in 1922 they built a new building at the same site.

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

Wise Memorial Hospital, 2225 North 16th Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
The second Wise Memorial Hospital, located in North Omaha at 2225 Sherman Avenue (aka N. 16th St.).

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.

Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshuran

In 1922, Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshuran moved to 2531 Seward Street. 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.

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.

Facilities for Jewish Elders

In 1916, the Daughters of the Israel Aid Society bought the house at 2506 Charles Street in North Omaha for $5,000 to serve as the Omaha Jewish Old People’s Home. Dedicated in 1917, the society also bought the house next door around the corner for use as a traditional bathhouse. Over the years, there were many fundraisers held for the institution, and many funerals were held there for the residents. It was open until 1940.


White Flight

Jewish Funeral Home, 4415 Cuming Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is an architectural drawing of the Jewish Funeral Home at 4415 Cuming Street.

Starting in the early 1920s, North Omaha started integrating in earnest. Afraid of living next to African Americans, many white people throughout the community moved to west Omaha. Institutions that had been key to the community had been closing or moving away for several decades, with 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 businesses along North 24th Street through the following decades.

In September 1951, Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol and B’nai Israel combined congregations to become Beth Israel. A new synagogue was built at 1502 North 52nd Street, and the Torahs from both former synagogues were moved to the new one. Temple Israel, the oldest synagogue in Omaha that was originally located downtown, moved to North 69th and Cass Streets in 1954.

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.

Emil Brandeis (1864-1912) gravemarker, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the gravemarker of the scion of a powerful North Omaha Jewish family called the Brandeis. Emil (1864-1912), who died on the Titantic in 1912.

Jewish North Omaha Historical Tour

Synagogues and Shuls

Other Sites

Jewish Businesses


You Might Like…

Elsewhere Online

Sources


BONUS PICS!

B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom, N. 25th and Seward Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska
This building served as home to the merged congregations of Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshurun and B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom before they moved to Cuming Street in 1952. It stands today at 2531 Seward Street.
This is a picture of Omaha Second Presbyterian Church that later became B'nai Jacob Anshe Sholem, once located at North 24th and Nicholas Streets.
This is the Second Presbyterian Church built in 1890 at 1109 North 24th Street. In 1908 became B’nai Jacob, and was rebuilt at the same location later.
This house, located at 1512 North 25th Street, was used as a ritual bath house for the Jewish Old Folks’ Home. After it was the bath house, it was home to the Lake-Charles Community Organization for several years, and was demolished in the late 1960s.
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.
Omaha Jewish Funeral Home, 1912 Cuming Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1926 pic of the Jewish Funeral Home that stood at 1912 Cuming Street through c1983.
Jewish Funeral Home, 1912 Cuming Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1983 pic of the Jewish Funeral Home located at 1912 Cuming Street. It was closed that year and a new facility was built.
2809 Seward Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is Mrs. B’s first house in Omaha, located in North Omaha at at 2809 Seward Street. Rose Blumpkin (1893-1998) was iconic owner of the Nebraska Furniture Mart for more than 75 years.

8 responses to “A History of North Omaha’s Jewish Community”

  1. Adam, Here is an anecdote of Omaha history featuring three angles: it is a Cuming Street story, a Jewish story, and a romantic story. It is the story of how my parents, Max and Phyllis Freed Bittner, met. [My father passed away in 2002, at age 83, and my mother, now 91, has lived in the Rose Blumkin Home for several years.]
    The year was 1948 and one Saturday afternoon my father attended a Nebraska football game in the Lincoln stadium. During half-time he saw a “beautiful girl” run across the football field all by herself. It was as if she had the whole field to herself! A year later in Omaha, Dad, who was in his late 20s at the time, was driving his little sister, Lillian, to school at Central High. On the way, they passed the corner of 30th and Cuming Streets, where my mother was waiting for the bus that would take her to her job at the Douglas County Welfare Office. [Mom said some people were so poor that when she asked them the mandatory question about what insurance they had, they would tell her, “Just burial insurance, ma’am.”]
    My father said to my aunt, “Will you look at that beautiful girl over there!” My aunt looked and said, “Why, that’s my friend, Phyllis. We teach Sunday School together at the J.C.C. [the old Jewish Community Center at 20th and Dodge]. “I’ve been meaning to introduce the two of you. Phyllis is also very well-liked, very popular.”
    So my father stopped the car, and my aunt made the introductions. Dad said to my mother, “I’m sure you’re that pretty girl I saw run across the football field at a Nebraska game last year.” Mom said, “Well, I was a tassel [some kind of sorority honor] then and I was in charge of the concession stand at the games.” She didn’t bother to add then what she used to tell people later in life when she told this story of how she met her husband. With characteristic modesty, when she got to the part about running the concession stand, she would say, “And I don’t think I did such a hot job.” Of course Dad always did say Mom was her own worst critic.
    I can identify with this whole story for a funny but true little reason. As a boy I took ice-skating lessons at Aksarben. Once or twice I was in the Aksarben Ice-capades, just skating in a long line with a bunch of other kids. Nothing to it. One year after all the performances on the ice were over, and almost everybody had vacated the rink building, I proceeded to ice-skate free-for-all style for a good half-hour all by myself. I had the whole rink to myself ! I skated forwards and backwards and did spins. Glorious!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Adam, could you please share with us what research methodology you used to determine the Jewish population on the North side? I’m interested since the census has not historically identified Jewish as a racial or ethnic category. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jeannette, and thanks for asking. I generally took population statistics for North Omaha’s Jewish population from the Jewish Federation website and the popular Omaha history books like “Gate City” by Larsen and “Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln” by Pollack. I also found useful numbers in “Our Story: Recollections of Omaha’s Early Jewish Community” by Rosenbaum et al.

      I will say that I take liberty in not citing my sources; my goal is to write accessible history that incentivizes interested readers in searching further on their own, and as a freely accessible source I don’t want to give every student free papers to crib from. However, questions like yours make me want to do it differently sometimes!

      Thanks for the note.

      Like

      • Thanks very much Adam. I agree with your approach to public history, but this is one of my areas of research so I was intrigued at your conclusions. The issue of identifying Jewish populations is a big problem for U.S. historians, the sources are fragmentary and unreliable.
        I’m still working on compiling data from a range of sources in addition to the ones you used and would be happy to share my results with you when I’m done.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much I really enjoyed this and will be passing it on to family and friends. I grew up at the old Beth Israel synagogue and my uncles owned Nebraska kosher meat market.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Jeannette Gabriel Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s