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The History of Jewish Omaha

Jewish history in Nebraska dates back to 1856 - a year after Congress authorized establishment of the new territory. From 1856 to 1863, Jews arrived in Nebraska from Germany, Austria and Bohemia; refugees from the political and economic crises in Europe.

Many began as peddlers traveling from farm to farm, later settling in small towns and establishing themselves in business and trades. Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Cahn and Meyer Hellman were the first Jews to arrive in Nebraska, crossing the river on September 7, 1856. With Omaha serving as the last point on the Oregon Trail for travelers headed across the plains, Cahn and
Hellman opened a clothing business. At Hellman’s death in 1892, their store was known as the oldest clothing establishment west of the Missouri river.

In 1868, a group of German Jews in Omaha formed the "Congregation of Israel" - the first Jewish congregation (Reform) in Nebraska. Land was purchased for a cemetery in 1872 and in 1884 it dedicated the first Jewish house of worship built in the state, at 23rd & Harney Streets in Omaha. Years later (1945), the congregation changed its name to "Temple Israel".

A second wave of Jewish arrivals began in 1882, following massacres and pogroms occurring throughout Russia and Eastern Europe. In Omaha, these immigrants found work in packing houses, smelters, 'junk' yards (metal recycling) and railroad production. The new orthodox synagogue opened above the first Jewish butcher shop and next door was a dye works where one of its vats was used for the mikveh.

Between 1901 and 1913 over 2000 Jews arrived with the help of the Jewish Agricultural Industrial Aid Society and the Jewish Colonization Office. During the first quarter of the new century community spirit and activism led to the establishment of a number of important organizations. Wise Memorial Hospital was instituted in 1899 with a capacity of 60 beds. Omaha
founded some of the first chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, B’nai B’rith and the founding of Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) a national brotherhood for Jewish high school youth. The Mother Chapter, AZA # 1, convenes to this day at the Jewish Community Center.

In 1903, the Association Charities was formed, one of the first three in the United States. This organization was later named 'The Jewish Welfare Fund' and eventually the 'Jewish Federation of Omaha'.

From its beginning, the Omaha Jewish community has proudly cared for its families, children, elderly and those at risk. It all began with the dreams and vision of Omaha’s Jewish founders and continued to flourish through the generations before us.

As a result, today we enjoy a vibrant and active Jewish community with the Jewish Federation of Omaha, its agencies, synagogues and numerous Jewish organizations dedicated to every aspect of Jewish life in our community.