Kansas Collection Books:  Sod Jerusalems, by Lloyd David HarrisGo to Contents


Send us funds and you will be astonished how fast we will settle on government land every able-bodied Russian emigrant. We think that the long deferred project of teaching people agricultural pursuits can now be speedily realized and the problem of what to do with the Russian Jew can at once be solved.
-- Isaac Mayer Wise, American Israelite, August 4, 1882 [1]
Isaac Mayer Wise was one of a kind, an extraordinary man -- ebullient, aggressive, an achiever and something of a hell-raiser. He was recognized as the foremost spokesman for American Jewry of the 19th century. He was the force behind Reform Judaism in America, loved by most and hated by many. No one was neutral.

Wise was born in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) in 1819 and arrived in the United States in 1846 with wife, child and two dollars in his pocket. There were at least 50 rabbis in the country at the time, but he was one of three who were ordained and seminary-trained.

His Þrst congregation was Beth El in Albany, New York, where he outraged the members and within a year faced heresy charges. His sins involved replacing long Hebrew prayers with English and German hymns and liberally borrowing from Christian worship rituals. Worse, he had made fun of the mikveh, the women's ritual bath, he would not sit shivah for seven-day mourning periods, he was known to work on the Sabbath and he did away with the women's gallery in the synagogue, bringing the women within seeing and touching distance of the men when they were at prayer, the ultimate distraction. 

On the eve of Rosh Hashonah, the rabbi had been observed writing at, of all places, the local Odd Fellows Lodge, and in the holy services the following day, just as he approached the ark to take out the sacred scrolls, the congregation's president clouted him on the head. Wise remained unrepentant, however, viewing the changes he had made as necessary to usher his congregation into what he regarded as modern, progressive America. With a splinter group from Beth El, he formed another congregation and they met in what had once been a Baptist building.

In 1854, he accepted a call to serve Cincinnati's Bene Jehurun congregation. He hit his stride in Cincinnati, serving the congregation for 46 years, editing two national Jewish newspapers (one in English, the other in Hebrew), founding Hebrew Union College and writing numerous books and hundreds of articles. [2]

When he decided Kansas was the place for Russian Jewish refugees -- well, it was. That was it. 

Rabbi Wise had visited the West, although not Kansas, five years before. In 1877, in an effort to organize the Union of American Hebrew Congregations -- that is, a union of Reform Jewish congregations -- he preached at Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska, an event that was remembered there for years afterwards, [3] and then headed farther west for visits to Salt Lake City and San Francisco. Traveling through Central Nebraska, he had his first experience with a prairie sunset and it made him a lover of the Great Plains and prairies from that time forward. He described it in his diary:

Sunset on the prairies is a grand scene which no pen can describe, no pencil depict, no language reach, and no colors represent. Majestically quiet and slow the sun moves on behind a veil of light clouds, growing in size as it comes nearer the horizon. The clouds receive and diffuse all glowing tinges which imagination can depict, changing tints and forms with every passing moment. You see mountains of gold encased in fire, castles of blue, gray and black outlined with gold and crimson, overtowered by huge battlements encased in liquid fire. Now it changes into the shape of a burning city, a group of sphinxes, a squadron of fiery riders, anything you can imagine, and always relieved by the most unspeakable colors. Now I understand the visions of those seers of old.... [4]
Four years later, he still remembered the splendor of the plains, much of its far Western land still vacant, unsettled and waiting for the plows of the daring and determined. Even before Russian emigrants arrived at his church door in Cincinnati, Rabbi Wise had written that he could think of nothing better than to be a farmer. "I would rejoice," he wrote in the American Israelite, August 26, 1881, "to see every Israelite who now struggles to eke out a poor living by selling merchandise to become an independent farmer, thriving in health and happiness with his family, keeping the Sabbath and singing songs of praise to the Guide of all good." 

He then printed, "for the benefit of those of our brethren who may desire to enter into agricultural pursuits," the full texts of the federal Homestead Law, the pre-emption law and the Timber Culture acts. "Read them and study them, and show them to your neighbors," he advised. "Pass them around to others. Then file them away, so that you can lay your hand on them when wanting to show to some one whom they may benefit." [5]

Three months later, he was raising money. Russian emigrants were on their way to America, he wrote, "poor in purse and poor in spirit, but with willing hands." The challenge was before them: "Put these emigrants to work on farms that will become their own, and they will work under a leadership that admits to no fail!"

"ACTION AND NOT WORDS!" he continued, in capital letters. "Bushels of pens and oceans of ink" had been used to denounce the persecutions of the refugees, but, he asked, who was really doing anything to help them? Who was really concerned about delivering them into the bosom of American agriculture? Fortunately, the executive board of the American Hebrew Congregations was offering 200,000 certificates at $5 each, the results of which would be $1 million, half of which would be, used "for leading our oppressed brethren into agricultural pursuits." It was time someone took action, the rabbi said, and this would be a worthwhile beginning. [6]

Four weeks later, Russian refugees were arriving in Cincinnati, and his congregation's Russian Emigrant Aid Society had its collective hands full. The refugees were destitute, clothed in rags, desperate, so woebegone that the local hotels turned them away. Rabbi Wise and the local committee set about finding food and shelter for them, sometimes crying with them. "We, who were eye witnesses to these scenes, could not suppress our tears of sympathy for these beggared, poor brethren," the rabbi told his American Israelite readers.

They came in tatters; their appearance is so bad that even 25-cent lodging houses will not receive them until the Committee can find rooms and furnish them for their occupancy. Last week six families arrived this city, consisting of eight men, nine women and thirteen children. The babies were without stockings on their feet, and the dresses of the women so torn that their breasts were exposed, the boys wearing clothes that fitted loosely, being the castoff clothing of some giant of a man in Brody, Russia.

The whole of Saturday, the members of the committee spent hunting for rooms for these six families and in buying stoves, kitchen utensils, beds, bedding and other furniture, coal and groceries.... In one tenement house there was almost a riot. The occupants did not want these queer-looking people to move into the house and it required the influence of the committee and the authority of the landlord to pacify the inmates. [7]
The oppressed brethren were a real difficulty; in blunter terms, they were an embarrassment, and the $5 certificates were not selling that fast. "If the Isratelites of this country do not want to become disgraced by these newcomers, and by and by be crowded by competition, they will do wisely to come forward with their aid," the rabbi warned. He said it was time that every city and village had clubs formed to sell the certificates. "We must raise a half a million dollars speedily to lead these newcomers into agricultural pursuits." [8]

But the money failed to come in with any great speed, and five months later the refugees were still in Cincinnati. There were at least 200 there -- 32 families with 70 children. Rabbi Wise wrote, 

All of them have been vaccinated and are in good health, with the exception of one woman, who is dropsical and two men who are nervously prostrated and one boy of seventeen, who, during night only, gives signs of lunacy; he seems to have before him the vision of the terrible riot enacted in Kief (Russia), and is in appalling dread of being followed up by the mob who threatened to kill him. He, like the rest of the sick, are under the skilled treatment of Dr. Rosenfeld, gratuitously, and to whom thanks are due. [9]
All the refugees had received "prompt and careful attention," he said, with the view of "making them self-sustaining and to have their welfare in their own hands."

All were doing fine, managing on their own, "with the exception of two young men, who have also been liberally aided, but who wasted what they received and are too lazy to work." The two had been dismissed "without any further aid," the rabbi wrote, but had been recently "slandering the committee, verbally and through the press, furnishing gossip for the evilly inclined." [10] Such ingratitude would not be tolerated. The committee still had an abundance of sympathy for the refugees, but escalating expenses coupled with the fact that very few would hire the refugees, forced the committee to a get-tough policy. Further, the committee had reached its limit as far as tolerating complainers. 

Rules were drawn up. Refugees would have to observe regulations having to do with sanitation, clothing, manners and willingness to work. Refugees would be required to sign a promise that they would take whatever jobs the committee found for them. The committee would take care of them for four weeks, get them jobs, and then they would be on their own. Any future refugees seeking help would have to be documented from the Port of New York. Finally, each refugee, as soon as possible, would return the money first advanced to him by the committee. The committee was offering help, not charity, its leaders insisted. They did not want refugees to think of themselves as beggars. And most important, by clamping on the rulest the committee was absolutely determined they would not be embarrassed again by refugees who failed to appreciate their help or the jobs they got for them. [11]

It was enough to make any refugee consider farming. 

The Hebrew Union Agricultural Society was organized, and along with the Cincinnati Russian Emigrant Aid Society, the two would take responsibility for getting the emigrants into agricultural colonies. It seemed easy enough. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided 160 acres of free land from the public domain to any American adult or head of a family who was a citizen or had declared his intention of being one. The only cost was a small fee -- usually $10. However, each settler had to prove five years of continuous residence and cultivation of the land before he could receive final title to it. Another provision, however, noted that after six months of residence, a settler could claim immediate ownership upon the payment of $1.25 an acre. [12] Rabbi Wise kept the faith: "We call on all men who have pity on these maltreated and outraged Jews to send us at once as much money as they might think proper to send in this most charitable enterprise." [13] 

In the meantime, the emigrants wrestled with the committee's expectations as to their manners and living habits. Cincinnati seemed tedious, the committee's rules hampered their lives and dampened their spirits. The call of the farm, the call of the prairies, had an extraordinary appeal, particularly since it meant they would be landowners and in Russia that had not been possible. It would be a dream come true. 

Rabbi Wise proudly announced that from 12 to 20 Russian families "all healthy and intelligent" had organized "by their own free will and choice" and were ready to head for the plains and the prairies. Some were already farmers, he said, and the rest knew at least enough to homestead land for settlement. [14] 

The emigrants appointed two of their members, Nathan Goldfarb and Julius Cohn, to go to Kansas and look over the area. They returned, reporting they had selected a tract of land on a stream 22 miles from a railroad and big enough for the entire colony. It was in Hodgeman county, about 50 miles northwest of Dodge City, 25 miles northeast of Cimarron. They were ready to go. 

"Ho, for Kansas!" Rabbi Wise wrote on July 28, 1882. "The first colony of Russian refugees left this week for Kansas. It consists of about 50 or 60 persons, 12 married men with their families and 12 single men, all sound and robust looking people who ought to make their mark as pioneers on Western prairie land." [15]

And to make sure, the Russians were being accompanied -- well, chaperoned -- to Kansas by two young Cincinnati Jews, Charles K. Davis and Leo Wise, the rabbi's eldest son and assistant editor of the American Israelite.

Digitized and composed in HTML for the Kansas Collection by Tod Roberts,
with permission of Gertrude Harris, widow of the author, December 2001.
NOTE: Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes for this text; footnotes
are numbered separately by chapter and published at the end of the work.

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