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The Jews of Butte County
Part Two
By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © December 01, 2015
(Originally published in the CBI Newsletter, December 2015)

Go West Young Mensch!

As described in part one of this series, the first Jews to come to the Americas were Sephardim (i.e. Jews from primarily Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East). These Jews settled and mostly remained along the Eastern Seaboard. Rosaline Levenson1 of Chico State University explains that because so much of Jewish practice and tradition is dependent on communal participation, the Sephardim mainly settled in areas where their friends and relatives from the Old World had already developed communities. This gave them access to synagogues, rabbis, kosher foods, and established services. They were thus able to continue their practice of Judaism in the New World without much difficulty.

As word of the California Gold Rush spread far and wide many of the Ashkenazim (i.e. Jews from the Rhine River in northern France and western Germany – the center of Ashkenazi life later spread to Poland-Lithuania) began making their way to the New World. Rather than settle in the established communities of the Eastern US, many of them pushed onward into the Wild West.

For frontier Jews of the 19th century, traditional Torah observance was difficult to maintain for the reasons stated above. Because of the lack of established Jewish communities in the Gold Country, coupled with their dreams of quick wealth, the settler Jews were generally not focusing on Old World customs and traditions. Torah still mattered to them of course, but they had more immediate concerns. It was frequently difficult for these Jews to assemble a minyan for their services and traditional rites were all the more uncommon.

Traditionally a minyan is a quorum of 10 Jewish men. In the difficult environment of the Old West of the 1800's, getting 10 men together for services was often problematic. In part because of this, in 1845 the Breslau convention of the newly created Reform movement began including women in many of its minyanim (over 80% of Conservative congregations now count women as well, while the Orthodox continue to count only men.2 Frontier women were of necessity tough and independent minded. It is no surprise therefore that the minhag or tradition of counting women in local minyanim gradually became common practice throughout the West.

I have not managed to find specific evidence that the original Jews of Butte County were consciously embracing Das Aufklärung3 (i.e. the philosophical European “enlightenment” of the 1650s to the 1780s), nor the subsequent uniquely Jewish Haskalah3 & 4 -- sometimes called the "Jewish Enlightenment," that ran from approximately the 1770s to the 1880s. However these Ashkenazim definitely demonstrated this essential spirit of their times. Haskalah paved the way for the Reform Movement, which is by far the largest Jewish movement (denomination) in the United States. While CBI is today non-aligned and quite diverse, it embraces the essential reformist paradigms of its predecessors and indeed was previously as Reform synagogue.

As with most reform movements, originally there was no thought of creating a separate form of Judaism. German Jews such as Israel Jacobson, Abraham Geiger, Samuel Holdheim and Leopold Zunz, were seeking to fundamentally reform or modernize Jewish belief and practice for all Jews. The leaders of Haskalah assumed that all Jews would welcome their reforms and the new intellectual and personal freedoms they offered. These 'modern Jews' could not understand why so many traditional or 'orthodox Jews' did not join their new found freedom. Why did so many of their peers cling to shtetl life (i.e. isolated, predominantly Jewish town life)? Why, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, did so many raise their arms heavenward and declare their continuing dedication to Jewish Tradition? The reformers scoffed at the 'outdated' halacha (i.e. Jewish law) but could not defeat it! To their minds, the Gentiles had finally opened the doors to Jewish equality, so why were so many Jews remaining mistrustful and unwilling to change? For the Orthodox, this new interpretation of Yiddishkeit (the traditional Jewish way of life) was seen as dangerous assimilation. The two camps divided one from the other.

These philosophical differences eventually lead to the creation of the Reform and Orthodox Movements. East Coast Jews, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike, especially in and around New York, tended to be more traditional/orthodox while the West Coast Jews tended to embrace the reform world view. This is of course an over-simplification. The Jews of Butte County have historically been open to a more personal and accepting form of Judaism, as exemplified by CBI.

Part Three

Notes and References consulted:

  1. Diggin's, by the Butte County Historical Society and Professor Rosaline Levenson of Chico State University, 1985, vol.29, no. 3 & 4
  3., parts 16 and 17, by Rabbi Shlomo Nachman, 1989
  4. in Exile

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