It’s been nearly 50 years since Omaha Jewish leaders staked out and bought a tract of mostly farmland south of 132nd and West Dodge Road to build a community center.
The facility grew over the decades to fill a 28-acre campus with an array of programs serving preschoolers to seniors. A $33 million renovation project was launched a few years ago to update the property in major ways.
Now, come this winter, it’s show time — as one of the final pieces, a $6 million rebuilt theater, is scheduled to open at the Jewish Community Center at 333 S. 132nd St.
Steve Levinger, chief development officer of the umbrella Jewish Federation of Omaha, describes the expanded 326-seat venue as (not counting school facilities) the city’s biggest full-service theater and performing arts stage west of 72nd Street.
He said the indoor theater should open a new door to live productions in Omaha's suburbia.
“For people interested in the arts and who live in west Omaha, this is a facility that will bring a number of theater productions and events to their backyard,” Levinger said. "It fills a void."
He emphasized that, like other programs at the JCC, the theater will serve all, not only the Jewish population. The JCC, part of the Jewish Federation of Omaha, counts about 2,500 family and individual memberships for a total of some 9,500 people.
The theater and its related dressing, music lesson and visual gallery areas are part of the last phase of the multiyear transformation financed so far with private dollars. A high-tech learning wing with a Hall of History and a coffee bar will also be finished this winter.
New locker rooms and spa areas are underway.
Overall, the JCC spans about 300,000 square feet of contiguous building space that, Levinger said, had grown tired and outdated. He said the campaign to make the center "relevant" for the next half-century was hatched at a “Jewish reunion” of sorts six years ago that drew supporters from across the country.
With a handful of major donors at the forefront, the fitness center was completely transformed by 2018. Also that year, old tennis courts and a leaky outdoor pool were replaced with the Goldstein Family Aquatics Center.
More recently came the new indoor family pool area, community meeting rooms and expanded dance studios.
Demolition on the theater, which opened in 1974 when the JCC moved west from downtown, began earlier this year. It will be named after Alan J. Levine, a benefactor who now lives in California but wanted to give back to the community where he grew up, Levinger said.
Omaha-based RDG is leading the theater redesign, which positions the place for musicals, dance troupes and lectures that before weren’t possible with the old acoustical setup, said JCC Executive Director Mark Martin.
Indeed, JCC representatives said there were times in the past when audiences gathered for Jewish Film Festivals were sent home because of equipment malfunction.
Joan Squires is president of Omaha Performing Arts, which operates downtown's much larger Orpheum Theater and Holland Center for the Performing Arts. O-pa has also announced plans to build a $109 million live music venue downtown. Squires said she foresees the improved JCC theater expanding opportunities for both adults and young people to participate in and experience performing arts.
She and JCC officials envision the new Levine center partnering with downtown and midtown organizations — providing a west Omaha location for arts workshops, smaller ensembles and other programming.
“It strengthens the whole industry when we can find these opportunities to work together,” Squires said.
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