Nebraska was organized as a territory in 1854, and within a year the stream of Jewish settlement had begun. The first Jewish settlers are believed to have been two brothers, Lewis and Henry Wessel, who went to Nebraska City from St. Louis in 1855. The next few decades brought a steady trickle of Jews who were predominantly of Central European origin (Alsace-Lorraine, Germany, Bohemia). Many had settled briefly in cities on the eastern seaboard before moving to the west, where, especially after the Civil War, the Homestead Act and railroad construction attracted new settlement. The early Jews in Nebraska were mainly merchants, such as Aaron Cahn and Meyer Hellman, who established a clothing business in Omaha to supply pioneers striking out on the Oregon Trail, and Carl Ernest Louis Golding, who was an Indian trader in Plattsmouth.
One of the most colorful figures in early Jewish life in Nebraska was Julius Meyer, who settled in Omaha in 1866 and became a successful Indian trader. He mastered at least six tribal dialects, was adopted into the Pawnee tribe, and was given the name "curly-headed-white-chief-with-one-tongue." He later became a government interpreter for the Indians and accompanied a party of them to the Paris Exposition. Another early Indian merchant, Harris L. Levi, was less fortunate. In 1869 he joined a surveying party, all of whom were massacred by the Indians in retaliation for the slaying of two Indian youths by the surveyors.
The most important early Jewish settler was Edward Rosewater, who went to Omaha in 1863 as manager of the Western Union, and then became active as a journalist, founding the Omaha Evening Bee News (1871). Rosewater was a leading and controversial figure in Republican Party affairs in the state, served as National Republican Committeeman from Nebraska, and was twice defeated for the U.S. Senate.
After 1881 Russian Jews began to arrive in large numbers, many of whom were systematically sent out west by the Industrial Removal Aid Society of New York. Some abortive attempts were made to settle the newcomers on the soil, and the Jewish Agricultural Society tried to found a colony in Cherry County in 1908, but by 1916 the experiment was abandoned.
With the exception of a handful of ranchers, the Jewish population of Nebraska, by 1970, was almost entirely concentrated in business and the professions. Scattered groups of Jews live in some of the smaller Nebraska towns (Grand Island, Norfolk, Scottsbluff, Beatrice), but only Omaha and Lincoln sustain organized community life. Lincoln has two congregations, one Conservative and one Reform, and a Jewish Welfare Federation. The Esther K. Newman Camp, between the two cities, serves the Jewish youth of the state during the summer.
Jews have served in a wide variety of public offices in the state since its inception. Many have been mayors of their municipalities, and as early as 1863 Aaron Cahn served in the legislature. Henry Monsky of Omaha gained national importance in the B'nai B'rith. Ben Greenberg of York was chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Edward Zorinksy was a United States Senator (1976–87) after serving as mayor of Omaha and defeating long-time incumbent Roman Hruska.
As of 2013, Nebraska's Jewish population was approximately 6,100 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. B. Postal and L. Koppman, Jewish Tourists' Guide to the U.S. (1954), 289–92.