The 140-year history of the Jews of Wyoming is a paradigm for the Jewish experience in the West and in America.
By 1868, the gleaming tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad had reached southeastern Wyoming. The opportunities in Cheyenne and Laramie, both nicknamed "Hell On Wheels," attracted a number of German Reform Jews, who had deserted their homeland after the egalitarian reforms of the Revolution of 1848 failed to materialize. Those who ventured to Wyoming were mostly peddlers or frontier merchants who dealt in clothing, liquor, cigars, and sundry items. Intent on fitting in, they noted with satisfaction that they were readily accepted as fellow pioneers. Ernestine Rose, a close friend of Susan B. Anthony, rode up and down the territory on horseback and in stagecoaches campaigning to grant full equality to women. Her mission was successful. In 1869, Wyoming granted women the right to vote and is nicknamed "The Equality State." "Jew Jake" (Jacob Louis Kaufman) built a roadhouse in La Belle in 1879 to service the cowboys as they rode through during the great Texas cattle drives. And legend has it that, as early as 1890, Max Meyer's dry goods store contracted with the John B. Stetson Company to make 10-gallon hats to sell to both rodeo and range cowboys.
Between 1881 and 1914, a flood of eastern European Jews from the Pale of Settlement crowded into the United States. Philanthropist Baron de Hirsch funded the Jewish Agricultural Society, an organization whose mission was to spread Jews throughout America. They sent some newly arriving immigrants to Wyoming to fulfill their agricultural dreams. The population of these would-be farmers in towns like Huntley was so high that it was necessary to hire a Yiddish-speaking teacher to instruct their children in public school. Other Jews were lured to Wyoming as a result of two Congression al Homestead Acts, which gave land to settlers in exchange for improving upon it. Primarily Orthodox Jews, this second wave of immigrants brought with them their customs, tools, and rituals; setting up synagogues, sacred burial grounds, and kashering capabilities. By 1919, the Orthodox synagogue in Cheyenne quietly absorbed the remnants of the Reform community into its own. Wyoming was indeed a place to strive for "a sack and a shovel, and shovel in the gold."
Opportunities for Jews in this rugged land were limited only by the extent of their imaginations.
Fred Goodstein, operating American Pipe and Supply, came to Casper in 1923 to take advantage of Wyoming's oil boom. He undoubtedly became the wealthiest man in the state, and more likely, the entire Rocky Mountain region. In 1930, Sol Bernstein opened what would become the largest mail-order western-wear store in the world. From the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, Wyoming's Jewish communities reached their strides. Anchored by stable marriages and successful businesses, Wyoming's Jews continued to be gratified by the feeling that both America and their adopted state had smiled upon them. New synagogues were built in Casper and Cheyenne. Weddings and bar mitzvahs were frequent enough to make full-time rabbis a necessity. Prayer books, Torahs and worshipers were plentiful throughout the state. The Wyoming Jewish Press was published in newspaper form by Abe Goldstein between 1930 and 1940. During WWII, a burgeoning of Jewish military personnel brought more Jews to Wyoming. Those that stayed and married invigorated and further strengthened Wyoming's vibrant and visible Jewish community. Subsequent to the war, a small wave of Holocaust survivors found the people and opportunities of Wyoming to be safe and relatively free of antisemitism.
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, college education of Wyoming's Jewish youth was an expected norm. The comforts and success of Jewish life in Wyoming was now perceived as a possible liability for the immigrants' progeny. The
The end of the 20th century marked a new pattern of immigration and observance for Wyoming's Jews. No longer concerned with escaping the political and social persecutions of their ancestors, this new immigration is often comprised of people searching for the rewards of material success they have achieved in other places. Jackson Hole in the Grand Tetons is a prosperous second-home destination for those wanting a reprieve from the pressures of frenzied city life, and is the fastest-growing Jewish community in the state. James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, and Alan Hirschfield, former president and CEO of Columbia Pictures, call Wyoming their home. Throughout the state, women no longer are content to silently witness ritual practices previously reserved for men only. And other long-time residents make conscious choices to live meaningful Jewish lives apart from an organized Jewish community.
Questions abound. Are the new Jews of Wyoming or merely in Wyoming? Are they observing real Judaism or inventing a new style that is far afield from the laws of the Torah? Is the strain and excitement of changing religious interpretation inherent to keeping Jewishness alive? Is it simply a divine right to be a Jew, regardless of the details? Answers vary, but it is certain, after more than 140 years on the high plains, that the Jews of Wyoming still find ways to keep themselves and their progeny ever-conscious of their Jewish lives. To those that have wandered in the wilderness for thousands of years, the landscape called Wyoming is familiar territory.
The highest concentration of Jews in Wyoming is to be found in the areas surrounding Jackson, Casper, Cheyenne, and Laramie. There are synagogues in Casper and Cheyenne and ongoing official community gatherings in Jackson and Laramie. The University of Wyoming supports an active branch of Hillel. There is currently no full-time rabbi in the state, though Jackson brings in a rabbi monthly and on holidays. Cheyenne employs a part-time cantor and Casper and Cheyenne have weekly lay-led services. Laramie's community has monthly and holiday lay-led services. All communities bring in a trained rabbi or cantor for High Holy Day services. Casper, Jackson, and Cheyenne have sacred burial ground, with Cheyenne having an active ḥevra kaddisha. All communities have at least one Torah, women are counted in minyanim, and each has an education program for youth and adults. Cheyenne, the oldest congregation, has a stream-fed mikveh and a fully equipped kosher kitchen.
As of 2013, Wyoming's Jewish population was approximately 1,150 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. P.D. Wolin, The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora (2000)