In response to the rising tide of Jewish immigration to the U.S. from Eastern and Central Europe in the 1880s, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise—the pioneer of American Reform Judaism—founded the Hebrew Union Agricultural Society to help these new arrivals settle in the Midwest, where the federal government was giving away land to anyone who cultivated it. Wise’s scheme was one of several contemporaneous projects to encourage Jews to take up farming, whether in the land of Israel, the Americas, or elsewhere. As the society’s flagship program, he created the colony of Beersheba, Kansas. Naomi Sandweiss writes:
By July 1882, the society [had] selected 59 men and their families, “all sound and robust-looking people,” to populate the settlement. Rabbi Wise’s own son, Leo Wise, accompanied the colonists to Kansas City to furnish them with supplies and guide them to their new home near the Pawnee River. In addition to a Torah scroll and a shofar, the agricultural society provided tents, farming implements, and livestock.
Initially, Beersheba’s progress was promising. The colonists built a 60-foot sod schoolhouse that doubled as a synagogue. They dug wells, farmed sorghum and kitchen vegetables, cared for . . . livestock, and warmed their houses with cow chips collected from the nearby cattle trails. They celebrated at the synagogue . . . and observed the Sabbath. . . . By most accounts, the newcomers were welcomed by their Gentile neighbors, with cowboys even offering meals of antelope steak, coffee, onions, and bread out of their chuck wagons to the settlers. . . .
After Beersheba’s initial success, disputes erupted between community members and the administrator Joseph Baum, a Hungarian-born Jew appointed by Rabbi Wise and the agricultural society. The conflict came to a head in 1884 when settlers began to explore other enterprises, including leasing part of their properties to cattle herders. In retribution, Wise and the agricultural society abruptly recalled the livestock and farming implements that they had supplied to the offenders. . . .
Shortly thereafter, the Beersheba colonists began dispersing and seeking their fortunes elsewhere, operating meat markets and dry-goods stores in the nearby [Kansas] boomtowns of Eminence and Ravanna and further afield in Garden City, Dodge City, and Wichita. At least half of the residents remained long enough to claim ownership of their 160-acre parcels [from the federal government] and on May 24, 1887, nine colonists filed their intent for U.S. citizenship. Several of the new land owners quickly mortgaged their properties for $200 each to fund future enterprises.
In short, like other similar projects, Wise’s agricultural society succeeded in helping Jews settle in the U.S. and find a path to self-sufficiency, even as it failed to create a new breed of Jewish farmers.