Jewish Farming Communities
Seven Jewish agricultural colonies were established in Kansas: on the High Plains in Beersheba (Hodgeman County), Gilead (Comanche County), Hebron (Barber County), Lasker (Clark County but established in Ford County), Leeser (Finney County), Montefiore (Pratt County), and Touro (Kearny County). Various groups encouraged Jews to move west to take up agriculture as a career.
Beersheba was the first of the Jewish communities established in Kansas. It was founded by 24 Russian Jewish families in the late summer of 1882 in Hodgeman County, north of Cimarron. To show their appreciation, the colonists wrote a letter of thanks to Moritz Loth, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations dated December 25, 1882, and published in the American Israelite, January 5, 1883:
"May you ever prosper. All of us have signed our names to this letter. All of the brethren who are at present in the Beer Shebe Colony offer their thanks to you for the kindness and benevolence which you have shown to the destitute and miserable fugitives. May God grant you much health and prosperity and grace for the kindness with which you have thus far treated us, and for the promise also to aid us in future. We have received from you boots, shoes, stockings, socks, blankets, flannels and cattle, for which we, our wives and children, offer you our heartfelt thanks . . ."
The Beersheba settlers built sod houses, a sod synagogue, and a schoolhouse where children were to study during the day and adults at night. Colonists sought books and furniture to supply the school and an American female to teach. By the spring of 1883 they had more than 200 acres in production, mostly with sorghum. Beersheba's initial success inspired other colonization efforts. By 1886 the community failed partly because the Cincinnati company reclaimed its implements and livestock.
Montefiore and Lasker were established by a Russian group called Am Olam, which hoped to create a home for Jewish people. Located in the southwestern corner of Pratt County, Montefiore was a colony of about 15 families. Founded in March 1884, the colonists began breaking ground and sowing wheat. Their first two years were plagued with drought and by late 1885 many colonists had left. Some went to Lasker, founded in 1885 in Ford and Clark counties. By 1887 at least 200 hundred people occupied Lasker, however, by the end of the decade, it too had been defeated by drought.
Hebron and Gilead had more success. Located in Barber County, Hebron was established by six Russian Jews. Known as the New Jerusalem, the community was approximately 40 square miles in size. It grew to hold some 80 families, about 300 people. With Hebron's success, Gilead was founded in March 1886 in Comanche County and was home to about a dozen Romanian Jews. After two severe winters in 1886 and 1887, families began to move away from Hebron. Whether because of a decade of drought or the opening of the Cherokee Strip, Hebron too began its decline, and no Jewish residents remained after 1895.
Touro, in Kearny County, was founded in early 1886. To the east, in Finney County, was Leeser. Jacob Warshawski brought his father and about a dozen other Russian Jewish families from New York to settle the communities. Many of the inhabitants were related. A blizzard in 1886, tornado in 1887, and drought beginning in 1888 led to the demise of the communities. By 1890 Touro and Leeser were gone.
These seven Jewish communities, though of different backgrounds, had common experiences: a mixture of natural disasters, scarcity of lumber and fuel, and lack of water resources. Because the colonization efforts came after other groups had settled in Kansas, they were left with less fertile land to purchase or homestead. Since several of the colonies were established at the end of a period with higher than normal rainfall, the land appeared more productive than it would prove to be. The communities experienced a series of blizzards and droughts, resulting in crop failures and deflating agricultural prices.
Even though all these once hopeful colonies disappeared, the settlers did not. Descendants of those early farming communities still live in the state. Some families remain prominent in Wichita and Kansas. These Jewish colonists and their descendants contribute to the rich and diverse cultural heritage of Kansas.
Entry: Jewish Farming Communities
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: September 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.