New Mexico became a settled part of New Spain with the expedition northward from Mexico of Juan de Onate in 1598. Recent research suggests the presence of crypto-Jews among the early settlers, following a period of active investigation and trials by the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Mexico City against the well-placed Carvajal family in Nuevo Leon in the mid-1590s. The existence of descendents of crypto-Jews re-emerged in the latter decades of the 20th century with open declarations of their past and, for some, their continuing of reawakened adherence to Judaism.
The takeover of the southwest by the United States from the mid-1840s allowed the influx of Americans (Anglos), among them Jewish traders who had accompanied the American military expeditions into the area. The earliest Jewish settlers, mostly from Germanic states, established a pattern of inviting family members or acquaintances to join them after they established themselves as merchants. Many of their enterprises proved highly successful, producing some of the wealthiest Anglo families in the Territory until the coming of the railroads in 1879–1880. They engaged in retail enterprises along with wholesale operations that linked local farmers with supplying army forts and Indian reservations. They lived mainly in Santa Fe, the capital, Las Vegas, and Las Cruces. Among the best known were the Spiegelbergs and Staabs of Santa Fe, the Ilfelds in Las Vegas, and the Freudenthal-Lesinskys in Las Cruces. In 1880, there were probably some 180 Jews in the whole Territory.
Religious and social institutions developed very slowly. The scarcity of Jewish women and the slow development of family life probably contributed to that condition. It was only after the railroad reached New Mexico that the first formal institutions appeared. B'nai B'rith led the way in Albuquerque in 1883 followed by the first congregation, Congregation Montefiore, in Las Vegas in 1884. Albuquerque's Jews organized Congregation Albert in 1897, today the oldest extant religious community in the state. Both congregations followed the practice of Reform Judaism. In 1920 Congregation B'nai Israel was formed in Albuquerque, which adopted the practice of Conservative Judaism.
Santa Fe suffered a sharp economic decline in the 1880s as a result of the main line of the railroads bypassing the town, and it recovered only in the second decade of the 20th century. Its Jewish population had dwindled as the town's economic condition worsened. No formal Jewish organization existed until the creation of a B'nai B'rith chapter in the mid-1930s.
After the railroad's arrival, the old-style enterprises largely disappeared to be replaced by more modest mercantile operations and some expansion into ranching and mining in the more easterly plains and southwestern mountains where newer towns such as Roswell, Clayton, and Silver City flourished. Where Jews lived in some 16 places in 1880 they lived in no less than 35 towns in 1900. One of the more unusual events arising out of the close contacts of isolated Jews with local populations was the marriage of Solomon Bibo to Juana Valle, a member of the Acoma Indian pueblo. He was appointed its governor in 1888 and served in that post a number of times.
New Mexico's Jews participated heavily in the political life of the territory and state. They served as both appointed and elected officials in local communities and countries across the Territory. Nathan Jaffa of Roswell became secretary of the Territory after 1907. The first mayor of Albuquerque after its incorporation in 1885 was Henry N. Jaffa, who later was a stalwart member of Congregation Albert. In 1890, Mike Mandell was also elected to the post of mayor. In 1930 Arthur Seligman of Santa Fe attained the governorship of the state and died while in office, although his adherence to Judaism has been questioned.
World War II and the half-century since brought great and rapid changes to New Mexico and its Jewish population. Its open spaces, clear weather, and isolation persuaded the federal government to build a number of air force facilities and locate the site for the Manhattan project to create the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. The Cold War that followed World War II witnessed expansion of what had begun during the war years. The half million population of the state in 1940 had more than tripled by the year 2000. Albuquerque grew from 35,000 in 1940 to 200,000 in 1960 to nearly a half-million in 2000.
The Jewish population stood at somewhat over 1,100 in 1940. By the year 2001, it had grown to at least 11,500, outpacing the growth of the general population. Increased numbers also altered the economic makeup of the Jewish community. Where in 1940 merchants had formed an overwhelming proportion of the Jews' economic activity, the changing economy fostered by the federal government's goals brought in a professional population of scientists, engineers, professors, and doctors. The growth of Los Alamos, a new town, exemplifies some of the change. Population growth and the GI Bill offering college education to veterans of the war swelled the numbers in state universities. The University of New Mexico established medical and law schools adding considerable numbers of Jewish professors to the general faculty as well as to the professional school faculties. Growing recognition of New Mexico as a place to retire led to the creation of such towns as Rio Rancho, which drew Jews from the northeast in the 1960s and 1970s. The new population, by the nature of its employment, outdistanced its older mercantile appearance that had existed before World War II.
The problems created by the war, for the Jews, such as a large refugee population in Europe and the establishment of Israel, gave impetus to a rapid expansion of Jewish organization – both secular and religious. Increasing numbers allowed the formation of formal congregations where there had been none before the war and growth in those institutions that did exist. The desire to collect funds for aid and relocation of refugees and support for the new and endangered state of Israel led to the formation of the Albuquerque Jewish Welfare Fund, which translated itself into the Jewish Community Council of Albuquerque and into a broader Jewish Federation of Greater Albuquerque. In 1971 the community created a monthly newspaper, the New Mexico Jewish Link, which contains the most concentrated source of information concerning Jewish activity in the state.
Jews continued to make their mark in the economic and political affairs of the state. More specialized than in the past, large businesses made a new appearance or grew greatly in the post-war economy. Among the most successful were those in furniture sales (American Furniture), home building (Sam Hoffman), and building supplies (Duke City Lumber), especially in the early decades after the war. Jews also moved into new areas of visibility, as they became police chiefs, conductors of the symphony, and leading architects. Well-known artists, such as Judy Chicago , moved to the state. In the late 1980s a Jew and a Republican, Steve Schiff, was elected to the national House of Representatives where he remained for five terms until his death in 1998.
While New Mexico was heavily Catholic historically, the rapid growth of a diverse religious population led to an atmosphere of toleration and interreligious toleration and cooperation in the post-World War II period. Following Vatican II, in 1965, Jews and Catholics established formal dialogues. Jews became far more active in social causes such as civil rights and the rights of women than was the case before World War II. At the turn of the 20th century that expansive mood still existed.
As of 2017, New Mexico's Jewish population was approximately 12,625 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. H. J. Tobias, A History of the Jews in New Mexico (1990); F.S. Fierman, Guts and Ruts: The Jewish Pioneer on the Trail in the American Southwest (1985); W.J. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company: The Rise and Decline of Mercantile Capitalism in New Mexico (1961); S. Hordes, To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico (2005).