Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In terms of numbers of adherents, Judaism has never had a large presence in the Great Plains. In 1990 only two counties–El Paso County, Colorado, home to Colorado Springs, and Tarrant County, Texas, with Fort Worth–had as many as two Reform Judaism congregations, and only twenty-one other counties in the region had even a single congregation. Most were urban counties, such as Cass County (with Fargo) and Burleigh County (with Bismarck), North Dakota. There were even fewer Conservative and Orthodox Judaism congregations in the region. Yet Judaism has been part of the religious landscape of the Plains since the beginnings of European American settlement. Eventually, Jews would come from all over Europe and from other parts of North America. Many came first as peddlers and became merchants, newsmen, and politicians; relatively few came as homesteaders and not many of those stayed on the land.

Denver, for example, was founded in 1858 by merchants and prospectors drawn to the gold rush. Among these were at least ten Jews, who gathered on Rosh Hashanah for what is believed to be the first religious services held in the city. While firmly attached to their Jewish heritage, these pioneers were apparently not observant Jews; most felt the need for a service only on Rosh Hashanah, with prayer being conducted by the most knowledgeable man. An early need was a Jewish cemetery, and usually the first organization was the Jewish Burial Society. This would frequently evolve into the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the core organization for the development of synagogues, welfare services, and schools.

Jews came to the Great Plains in significant numbers in the late nineteenth century from eastern Europe and Russia, where anti-Semitism was on the rise. By 1890, for example, there were 1,000 Jews in Omaha, Nebraska. Others, sponsored by such agencies as the Industrial Removal Office (founded in New York in 1901), sought to make a living on the land. By 1910 there were at least 1,200 Jewish farmers in central North Dakota. Jewish farm families also settled in southern Alberta.

Maintaining culture and religion was difficult in these thinly settled areas. There were usually not enough people in a given area to establish a synagogue, hire a rabbi, support a kosher butcher, or maintain a cheder (Jewish elementary school). In Burleigh County, North Dakota, Jewish women arranged for a Bismarck rabbi to rotate from one locale to another, teaching Hebrew to children, performing ritual slaughtering of animals, and conducting services. But generally, rural Jewish settlers stayed on the land only long enough to prove up their homesteads. Then they sold the property and moved to towns within, and beyond, the Great Plains.

Because the Jews of the Great Plains came from every quarter of Europe and from every economic class, there were sometimes ethnic, political, and theological tensions. For example, in 1884 the Reform rabbi of Denver's Temple Emmanuel was told to stop ridiculing Orthodox Jews, and in the 1930s Zionist versus anti-Zionist arguments swept through Jewish communities. In the Wichita German Jewish community in the late nineteenth century, Reform Judaism was embraced by those who sought a degree of cultural assimilation. Dietary laws were relaxed, and prayer was given in English rather than Hebrew. Weekly services took place in homes and were often conducted by a layman. Later Jewish arrivals in Wichita from eastern Europe practiced a more traditional faith, forming a Hebrew congregation in 1906. But the tensions between the two groups were minor: there were so few Jews that religious compromise was imperative if the community was to survive.

Today the Jews of the Great Plains are largely urban. Communities are under the aegis of the Jewish Federation of each city. However, folk wisdom has it that, in any small town in which a Jew would wish to settle there would be a Jew there to meet him, or her, at the station.


Gladys Sturman Western States Jewish History

Gaustad, Edwin Scott, and Philip L. Barlow. New Historical Atlas of Religions in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Rothman, Hal. "'Same Horse, New Wagon': Tradition and Assimilation among the Jews of Wichita, 1835–1930." Great Plains Quarterly 15 (1995): 83–104.

Schulte, Janet E. "'Proving Up and Moving Up': Jewish Homesteading Activity in North Dakota, 1900–1920." Great Plains Quarterly 10 (1990): 228–44.

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