The Red Coat

Artwork by James Michael Smith

The amount of work that has been completed at the Jewish Federation of Omaha in recent years, in no small measure thanks to Michael Staenberg, is astounding and, Michael hopes, an inspiration to us all.

Everything he has done stems from the lessons his father, Marty Staenberg, taught him, culminating in the story Michael loves to tell about that red coat.

It’s an inspiring story, and though we’ve covered it here before, it’s worth reading again.

“I was young, I wanted a red coat because of the Nebraska Huskers,” Michael remembers. “My dad said that if I wanted that coat so bad, I’d have to work for it. And so I worked, and worked. When I finally had the money to buy the coat, my dad placed the money in front of me and started putting it into piles. I knew right away what was happening; what followed was a hard lesson in how to divide up your earnings. How much goes to Tzedakah? After taking that portion out, there was not enough money left for the coat. I screamed and hid under my bed, I was so upset! My father said: ‘you have two choices. You can quit, or you can work another couple of weeks until you do have enough left to buy the coat. I eventually came out of my fit and made the right choice, worked another month and was able to get that coat. It’s a lesson that’s stuck with me to this day; every time I fail or do something stupid, I remind myself: ‘you have a choice.’ Do I quit, or do I work harder? The answer is right in front of me. If I want that ‘red coat,’ I work harder.”

We all have our own ‘red coat:’ the thing we feel we need, the thing we have to maybe wait for a little longer than we’d like. Especially if we have to wait longer because other things (like Tzedakah) come first, that can be difficult. At the same time, this year has show all of us that when need arises, we as a community answer—no questions asked.

A gift like Michael’s has no beginning and no end: this community was established long before any of us came on the scene and will hopefully be here long after we are gone. But, if we want our children and grandchildren to have the same experience as we did, we all have to step up. While Michael’s gift comes in the form of bricks, paint and drywall and then some, what he really has given us is a bright future and the conviction to make things happen no matter what.

“Part of my vision,” Michael said, “is being able to hand off the torch to others who can run with it.  It’s a critical step in building a strong community for all of us.  It’s wise to do it now so others can step up. I am eager to see who it will be, and where.”

Michael’s gift set the bar high from the moment he decided to get involved; he has inspired others to join him and hopes that inspiration will last for years. Giving always becomes more meaningful when others join in.

“Vince Lombardi, Bill Cowher, Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson were successful coaches,” Michael said, “and they retired when they felt they were no longer effective, needed a break, and/or moved on to something else that piqued their interest.  For example, Bill Cowher coached the Pittsburgh Steelers to five Super Bowls.  He wanted to leave on a high note, so decided to find an encore career in another opportunity. I’ve been blessed to be able to help many nonprofits throughout the years, and because of my experience, helped develop numerous nonprofit agencies to become first in class, premier and fiscally sound.      

“I don’t mind continuing to make a difference by being a donor; but I will not be engaging in fundraising anymore, I have done enough in my estimation. As you know, personally and through my foundation, I have encouraged others to help the next generation to develop a culture of volunteering and giving back.  Others in our communities need to take ownership of that important mindset and legacy, which I was mentored in by I.E. Millstone and Tom Green. I remain committed to our communities and will always be available for advice and counsel.  But others need to step up now.”

Don’t think for one second Michael is slowing down.

“It’s time I return to my passion….which is the real estate business. I’ll always have the opportunity to go back to the nonprofit development world.  But this is what I mean when I say, “coaches do retire.” 

This community owes Michael a very big ‘Thank You.”  The best way to thank him is to follow in his footsteps. Michael has set a high bar, but when we consider the future memories our children and grandchildren will create in our community, it’s a bar we’ll be proud to meet.