annette van de kamp-wright
Editor, Jewish Press

Walk through our Jewish Community with Michael Staenberg and it quickly becomes obvious: this man notices everything. A builder by profession –he is the president of The Staenberg Group (TSG)–and a philanthropist by choice, Staenberg has an inspiring history of giving. His generosity stretches from his hometown St. Louis where he transformed the Jewish Community Center to Denver, Colorado, where his family foundation recently launched the “Michael H. Staenberg Anything Grants,” providing a broad range of support for a variety of Jewish organizations as well as synagogues.

“Michael Staenberg did not ask for this Jewish Press article to be written,” JFO President Bruce Friedlander said, “or for his picture to be taken. I asked. Michael’s love for this project is genuine. Having Tom Fellman and Howard Kooper, two of our most respected philanthropists, on board as well makes this team historic for Omaha’s Jewish community. These three men have never questioned the importance of our campus. The legacy they will leave teach us that Omaha is a very special place to call home. I believe the fitness center is the start of a larger project that will fulfill a vision for our community and the donors that future generations will enjoy and benefit for decades.”

Staenberg lives in Missouri with his wife Carol, but was born and raised in Omaha.

He believes in giving back, by funding projects, donating his time and energy and getting involved. When he visited his birth place for the Jewish Omaha Reunion in 2014, he toured the JCC and felt there was a job for him:

“I looked around and saw the JCC needed updates, to the gym, to the pool, to a number of other things. It makes me feel proud to come back to Omaha and be in a position to help out.”

This is not the JCC Staenberg grew up in; that was the previous building on 20th St. Staenberg went to Westside High School and regularly took the bus downtown.

“When I wasn’t with my friends at Beth El, I would meet them at the JCC. It’s where I connected with other Jewish kids, where I played basketball, where AZA was. It was such a welcoming place, and I want that for future generations.”

And so he rolled up his sleeves, literally, because for Staenberg it is not only about the money he gives. It’s a communal effort he’s after — regardless of who writes the check.

Our current JCC, which was opened in the early 1970s, certainly needs some TLC.

“Michael Staenberg’s leadership and experience has helped us define what our campus needs are,” JFO CEO Alan Potash said. “He is instrumental in recognizing how to financially sustain our JCC and the Federation in the future. We are benefiting enormously from his experience redesigning the Jewish Community Centers in St. Louis and Denver.”

Since Staenberg decided to get involved, it has received a new running track, new carpet in the fitness center as well as on the upper running track. The walls have been painted, new lights have been installed (including LED in the gym) and there is new furniture in the front lobby. There is new art on the walls, there are new television screens, and with every improvement Staenberg has funded, he has invested equal amounts of time and energy.

“I give to give,” he says, “not to get.” What he means is that the act of giving itself is a labour of love. Michael Staenberg does not write a check and walk away; he is going to help spend that check and have tremendous fun doing it. He cares about how the place looks, and how it will be used: programing, he says, should not focus on profit for profit’s sake; it should be invested in other Jewish programs. It’s a visionary philanthropy; when he looks around him he sees what is there, and what could be there, and his passion is infectious.

“Michael has an Omaha heart and soul,” says Tom Fellman, who has known Michael all his life. Tom and his business partner Howard Kooper have both agreed to join Staenberg’s investment in our future.

“He gets me excited. He is so passionate and he made me a believer that a vibrant Jewish Community Center is absolutely essential for our Jewish Community. Having a communal home like this, in addition to our synagogues, helps us collectively and I’m absolutely thrilled that he got us on board.”

Howard Kooper echoes the sentiment when he says: “Talking to Michael,you have no choice but to get excited. He has tremendous energy and it rubs off on everybody he works with.”

It’s the hands-on approach that allows Staenberg to engage others in a big way. In the St. Louis, metropolitan area, Staenberg asked 10-15 community members under 30 to select a recipient for a micro grant. They have to do the research and make their case for which organization should receive the money, and they have to stay involved.

“You don’t just get a percentage return; you get a lot more than that,” Staenberg says. “I didn’t get here by myself. My father died when I was 13 years old, and I received a lot of sage advice from people along the way. Now it’s my job to forward it to others.”

This building of ours is so much more than a pile of bricks. It’s a home for our community, it’s the collective depository of memories, and Staenberg, with help from Tom Fellman and Howard Kooper, is taking it to the next level.

“We may get there through different doors,” he says, “but we all live in the same tent.”