March 26, 2019

Little Jewish House on the Prairie

“Eight miles from Garden City, Kansas, in a remote landscape of corn fields without end, punctuated only by pheasants and blackbirds, lies an unexpected discovery: several gravestones, the only physical remains of Beersheba, a Jewish agricultural colony established in 1882.

Beersheba’s existence was an outgrowth of the surge in Russian Jewish migration to the United States in the 1880s. After Russia’s Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, his son, Czar Alexander III, rescinded his father’s more lenient policies toward Jews. Overnight, Russian Jews were prohibited from owning or leasing land, and subjected to days-long pogroms that began in Kiev and quickly spread throughout the region.

Concerned about both the welfare and perceptions of their backward-seeming, Eastern European co-religionists, American Jewish leaders sought options for settling the newcomers without “burdening” the established Jewish community.

The civilization of those (Russian Jews) is in form entirely different from ours. Will they become good citizens of this country? They must become that or we have no use for them. Unless they do that they will disrupt our social status and may do considerable damage to the reputation of our co-religionists.
—Isaac Mayer Wise, American Israelite, May 1882

The Beersheba colony was conceived and funded by the Hebrew Union Agricultural Society, the brainchild of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the American Jewish Reform movement. While Wise’s idea of Jewish agricultural settlement was not original—Russia was the birthplace of Jewish back-to-the-land movements focused upon the Holy Land (Bimu) and the United States (Am Olam)—Wise financed the Beersheba project through appeals in his publication, American Israelite. Beersheba community members would homestead in Southwestern Kansas, capitalizing on the U.S. government’s promise of 160 acres to any citizen or would-be citizen who improved their acreage, built a dwelling, and resided there five years. In June 1882, Wise implored “all men who have pity on those maltreated and outraged Jews to send us at once as much money as they think proper to spend in this most charitable enterprise.””

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