B’nai B’rith Flourished in the Wild West
By Cheryl Kempler
Despite rampant prejudice against Chinese and Latin Americans, there was little if any overt anti-Semitism. Conversely, even the most devout Jews, far from urban centers and dependent on their gentile neighbors, accepted invitations to join the Catholic Knights of Columbus, the Odd Fellows and the Masons, as well as B’nai B’rith, whose lodges were ubiquitous but sometimes short-lived. From the strictly Orthodox to the non-observant, Jews bonded, if only to establish and maintain a separate cemetery.
With its foul-smelling mines, breweries and brothels, Butte, Montana was hardly a garden spot, but, with three brick-and-mortar synagogues, its Jewish community was cohesive and well-organized. Henry Jacobs, a German Jewish immigrant, was elected as Butte’s first mayor in 1879. Members of the Baron de Hirsch Lodge, established in 1892, included theater manager A.A. Sheurman and one of the West’s most influential Reform rabbis, British-born Montague N.A. Cohen.
Nearly 100 lodge members attended weekly talks on topics including “The Jewish Problem in Relation to Race and Nationality.” They also worked with local law enforcement to identify Jews involved in prostitution and sex trafficking, and mounted a campaign to expunge offensive stereotypes from the stage.
In 1861, Jacob Levison, a California marshal who later served in the state legislature, founded Garizim Lodge #43 in Grass Valley, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Over the years, other prominent Garizim members included German brothers Jacob and Joseph Weissbein, businessmen with interests in mining, banks and land. Levison also headed the Jewish cemetery association. The lodge survived for more than 40 years. Jews owned 17 of the town’s 19 clothing stores, patronized by miners who had emigrated from Cornwall, England.
After rich lodes of silver and gold were found in 1859, California prospectors flocked to the Nevada Territory’s remote Comstock region; within two years, the population jumped to 16,000. Miners purchased clothes and provisions from Jewish merchants in Virginia City, a comparative metropolis.
According to authority John Marshall, economic and religious disputes in the Jewish community impeded its progress. The men who joined the wealthy Nevada Lodge and the less wealthy King Solomon Lodge, founded in 1864 and 1865, respectively, fomented a rivalry that scuttled a joint effort to build a public library. The lodges consolidated with 113 members soon afterwards. Plans to build a synagogue were thwarted as well, so worship services in various public spaces were led by B’nai B’rith’s Herman Bien, an itinerant rabbi whose New York-based brother, Julius, would lead the organization as international president. When Nevada achieved statehood, Bien, who had just inaugurated Virginia City’s first Jewish school, was appointed to the legislature, where he contributed to the writing of Nevada’s constitution.
Dedicated in 1880, Leadville’s Jewish cemetery, where 100 people are buried on land donated by legendary silver mining mogul Horace Tabor, a non-Jew, fell into disrepair. But, in 1997 Denver Lodge initiated a cleanup and restoration project that is ongoing. Each summer, more than 100 people enjoy a weekend camping, worshiping and maintaining the grounds and headstones. For more information, contact B’nai B’rith Denver at Admin@BnaiBrithDenver.org (303-393-7358).