This week, during Passover, Jewish communities everywhere will gather together to retell one of the oldest tales in the world: the biblical story of Exodus.
But a group in Lawrence, Kansas recently revealed a newer chapter of Jewish history. The Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation succeeded in getting a 19th-century Jewish cemetery in Eudora, Kansas a place on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s the last trace of a pioneering Jewish community that helped found the tiny town.
If you could travel back to eastern Kansas in the 1850s you might see a scene made familiar in countless movies and books: a group of hearty travelers venturing west in search of a better life. But these weren’t homesteaders or gold prospectors. They were an orthodox community Jewish who came to the frontier from Chicago. As University of Kansas American Studies professor David Katzman explains, these entrepreneurs came to Kansas after finding it nearly impossible to start a business in Chicago.
“You might be a peddler, rather than being a storekeeper,” says Katzman. “So the idea of the West was that it offered an opportunity to actually open and run a store, rather than being an itinerant peddler, which many Jewish merchants and non-Jews were at the time.”
In 1854, the Kansas territory was opened to settlement, and shortly afterward, a Chicago-based German-speaking association bought some Kansas land from a Shawnee American Indian. The company thought the land between the Kansas River and the California trail would be an ideal place to start new businesses. About a quarter of the group that came to the new settlement and founded the town of Eudora were Jewish. Professor Katzman says that, despite being in the minority, there’s no evidence that the Jewish settlers faced much discrimination. In fact, some were leaders of the community.
“Clearly they were part of the community,” explains Katzman. “For example, Abraham Summerfield was elected to the first city council in Eudora and also was the first postmaster. So from the very start, they were part of the Eudora community and accepted as fellow pioneers.”
The Beni Israel community in Eudora was just the second Jewish group in Kansas, coming after a group in Leavenworth. In addition to the appeal of new markets, historian Dale Nimz believes the politics of the new Kansas territory may have attracted the new settlers.
“Most of the Germans who were immigrants as this time, which would include Jewish Germans, are liberal in their politics, and they tend to be free state and opposed to slavery,” says Nimz “The primary reason is probably economic, but an associated and, for some people, just as strong or even stronger motive is politics and making Kansas a free state.”
The Eudora Jewish community only lasted about ten years before members went their seperate ways, and many went to Lawrence. The group never had a synagogue or a rabbi, but it did establish a cemetery in 1858.
Cemetery Beni Israel Today
A chain link fence surrounds the cemetery, which is the only remaining trace of Beni Israel. On the outskirts of Eudora, its two acres have weathered the decades in the shadow of K-10 highway. Looking at the eighteen gravestones from the 19th century, you can see a lot of misspelled Hebrew, proof that the stone carvers were probably not Jewish. But it’s not just people who were laid to rest at the Beni Israel cemetery. According to Jewish tradition, worn-out holy books should be interred in a cemetery in what’s called a genizah. In many cemeteries, this might be a depository or a small building, but in the Eudora cemetery, books are actually buried in the ground. Lorraine Lidenbaum recalls when her Lawrence congregation came to use the genizah.
“The most spiritual moment for me, since I’ve lived in Lawrence was the evening we were burying some old prayer books at the cemetery,” says Lindenbaum. “It was at sundown. We had buried the prayer books and were sitting on the ground. And it was sunset. And it was the first time I had actually watched and seen the sun moving. I had seen sunset before, but I actually saw the sun moving down as we buried those prayer books, and it was a very spiritual moment for me.”
The Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation took over the care of the cemetery in 1978, and they’ve brought it back to use. Earlier this year, with the help of Professors Katzman and Nimz, they were able to get the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places. Lorraine Lindenbaum, who is on the congregation’s cemetery committee, says it serves as a reminder of the long history that Judaism has in Kansas.
“It’s exciting for us because it helps to identify who we are and makes us more credible. It’s a gem, really. When you know the history of it, it reflects the movement of Jewish families from one generation into another.”
The Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation plans to maintain the Eudora cemetery indefinitely.