I spent a Shabbat in Omaha, Nebraska, recently and really enjoyed my time. If you ever wondered what the community there is like, read on. Was I asked to write this? No. I did it because I think it's a community worth looking at if you're considering a move out of the city life or the typical NJ/NY experience. Also: Nebraska's unemployment is the second-lowest in the nation and Warren Buffett lives there, so ... that's awesome, right?
Do you even know where Omaha is? Most people know Omaha and only Omaha when I mention that I'm from Nebraska. We landed in Nebraska in 1996 and I left there after graduating college in 2006, but there are moments of longing for the simple, easy life that it provides. Luckily, Denver gives that same kind of chill living, almost to a second degree.
My only pre-recent experience with the Omaha Jewish community: a Shabbat visit to the Chabad there where they let me light Shabbat candles despite not being converted yet (which made me feel awesome and special and Jewish) and Passover at the big Conservative synagogue there. Both experiences I had with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Hillel as we attempted to broaden our Jewish life in Lincoln.
So when I was planning my most-of-the-way-cross-country trip, I knew that I needed to stop somewhere for Shabbat, and my options were Chicago, Des Moines, and Omaha, and because I was trying to stay on I-80 for the trek, I opted for Omaha because, well, it's my home state and I'd read in the OU magazine once that the community there was booming with young adults and a happenin' Jewish experience. I mean, they had a kosher bagel shop that burned down and was immediately rebuilt because of its importance to the community.
So I looked up the rabbi at Beth Israel (Orthodox) -- Rabbi Gross -- and sent an email out into the abyss hoping for a Shabbat hookup. He responded quickly with a place for me to stay and meals, too! (Truth time: I actually wrote to him on Shabbat.com and email and Facebook ... I was anxious.)
I arrived just in time to my hosts' house to find out there was another Shabbat guest who currently is United States trotting (her story is fascinating), and at dinner discovered there was another stopperby on his way to Arizona. It was an impromptu Shabbaton, and we were all welcomed with the openest of arms by the rabbi and community.
The shul is very new and modern, which some like and some don't. I'm one of those traditionalists who really likes the old-school, old-world shuls with lots of character and history, but for an Orthodox shul, it had beautiful artwork and stained glass and quite the nice mechitzah, too, which, let's be honest, can make or break the experience of davening. (Wait, am I the only one who thinks this?)
I really enjoyed the rabbi's d'rash, if only because for the first time in a long time, I watched an Orthodox rabbi interact with his audience! He asked questions, took answers, and made it more of an interactive learning experience then a soapbox pulpit presentation, which I really enjoyed. Next time I'll have to study the parsha to make sure I'm prepared for the Q&A.
The community is diverse -- black hats to women without covering -- but it seems that everyone jibes well with one another, and that's the sign of a very powerful dynamic. And rumor has it that the eruv is going up soon, which will be the first time there's been one in Omaha ever!
As the community grows, so too will its infrastructure. I have no doubt in my mind that with Rabbi Gross's leadership the community will be rocking out plenty of Jewish amenities in the future that will make Omaha a more tantalizing location. But if you want out of the NY/NJ scene and want to buy a house for what you'll get a shoebox apartment in the City? Then consider Omaha. A community can only grow and become awesome if people go there.
Believe me, if I weren't in Denver right now, I might very well be in Omaha. My friends are there, the congregation is growing, the amount of children running around is enough to put a smile on your face, and there's a bagel joint. What more could you ask for?
PS: Check out the rabbi's blog here.