It was 1986 when Rabbi Mendel and Shani Katzman, married for a year and a half, arrived on the scene in Omaha, Neb., newborn baby in tow.

"It was very exciting," says Shani Katzman, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Nebraska. "We knew absolutely nobody, and had never even seen the city of Omaha."

Katzman explains that to be sent out to open a Chabad House is not the same as coming to a pulpit: "You have a specific mission, and you are asked to make a lifetime commitment to empower all Jews to become what they are meant to be."

Both Katzmans acknowledge that there was no specific reason to come to Omaha beforehand to see what they were getting themselves into; they would have said "yes" to any destination. He had traveled extensively for Chabad-Lubavitch, and they had done some traveling as a couple.

She remembers those first days well.

"Although we found a wonderful and warm community when we came, many people thought we were too old fashioned for these modern times, and saw us as having not much relevance," she explains. "Little by little, we were able to convince people that traditional Judaism always has relevance; we focus on maintaining traditions while bringing new vitality and enthusiasm."

Even the bima, the platform from which the Torah is read during services, serves as a visual reminder that new is not always better. It was originally housed in the city's historic Kapulier Shul, a now-defunct synagogue.

"When we received it, it was covered in three layers of paint," she notes. "It was painstakingly restored to its former glory; nowadays we often receive comments about how beautiful it is."

The Chabad House is not a synagogue, but an outreach organization. It requires no membership, and collects no dues.

"Visitors of all different backgrounds can feel welcome here," says the rabbi. "We accept all Jews without asking them to fit a certain mold; we want to be a bridge that connects the finite with the infinite, the past with the present, and the deeply committed with the peripherally involved."

Kelly Kirk is a regular at the Chabad House; she and her children take classes and attend special events whenever they can.

"We always feel welcome at Chabad, and have grown tremendously as a family," she says.

Community Offerings

Many of Chabad-Lubavitch of Nebraska’s programs are focused on teaching children about their Jewish heritage.
Many of Chabad-Lubavitch of Nebraska’s programs are focused on teaching children about their Jewish heritage.
Current programming includes Mishpacha Morning, a Sunday day of learning for the whole family. Parents focus on that week's Torah reading and upcoming Jewish holidays, while the children follow their own program.

"Mishpacha Mornings are great," says Kirk, "It always starts off with a fantastic breakfast, and gives parents the opportunity to learn alongside their children, as well as connect with other parents from many different backgrounds."

Another well-attended function is the monthly Bedtime Story Time, which invites children to come to the Chabad House bedecked in pajamas. They enjoy a snack and a bedtime story before heading home. The institution also runs a religious school, summer and winter camps, adult education opportunities and special holiday events.

Its gala event is scheduled for next month at KANEKO, Omaha's newest entertainment venue.

"We want to raise awareness of who we are," says Mendel Katzman of the upcoming banquet. "Also, a large part of Judaism is feasting, partying, and gathering your friends together."

"Rabbi Katzman did not come into this community with a heavy hand," explains Joe Kirshenbaum, who, along with wife Maxine Kirshenbaum and Mike and Gail Yanney, will be honored at the April 23 event. "He quickly endeared himself to many members in the community.

"He is very good at motivating people to go that extra mile without stepping on anybody's toes," continues Kirsenbaum. "He and Shani add a dimension to our community that's critical."