BOISE — Christians weren’t the only ones who packed up their belongings in the early days of the United States and hit the trail to make a new life in the American west.
In the mid-19th century, Jewish Americans joined the thousands of pioneers who decided to try their luck in the wild, wide open spaces of the Idaho territory. They arrived in small groups to open businesses in the 1860s to serve the booming mining towns springing up across the state, including in the Treasure Valley. Although they were not a large community, this initial migration planted the seeds for the founding of Idaho’s first synagogue celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2020.
Jews in Boise informally gathered in each other's homes for services through the mid-1890s, but their group outgrew the living rooms they were worshiping in. Under the leadership of Moses Alexander, the group voted in February 1895 to form a congregation and raise the funds to build a synagogue of their own. Less than a year later, they completed construction of a Spanish-inspired house of worship at the intersection of 11th and State streets.
Alexander later went on to become mayor of Boise in 1897 and later, the first elected Jewish governor in the United States when he became Idaho’s chief executive in 1914.
The building may have since been moved to the Boise Bench, but it has been a gathering place for Jews ever since and remains the oldest synagogue in continuous use west of the Mississippi. It is home to Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, the result of a merger between the Beth Israel reform congregation Alexander started in 1895 and the conservative Ahavath Isreal congregation founded in 1912.
Rabbi Dan Fink, who began leading Ahavath Beth Israel in 1994, said although his synagogue is small and without the backing that comes from being located in a large city with a sizable Jewish population, it has blossomed anyway. There are now roughly 225 families or individuals members of the congregation.
“It’s a real achievement that we have not only survived, but thrived and grown for 125 years,” he said. “We’re a do-it-yourself community.”
He said the synagogue serves both reform and conservative Jews “from birth to death” in a variety of ways, both with traditional religious services held in the historic synagogue and community support groups for families to meet each other and grow as a community. On Friday nights, he performs a service aimed at reform Jews and leads more conservative worshipers on Saturday mornings.
This blend of different religious ideologies came from slow merger of the two congregations that was finally completed in 1987 after years of negotiations and discussions. They began worshiping in the same synagogue on State Street, which was renovated from top to bottom in the early '80s.
Jews typically fall under three major philosophical umbrellas of thought: reform, conservative and orthodox. Reform Jews are the most liberal of the three and is the most open to outside influences and progressive causes. Conservative Judaism has a stronger emphasis on Jewish law, and services are more traditional than Reform synagogues often perform. Orthodox Judaism is the most strict of the three, where followers believe Jewish law should be followed exactly as it was interpreted during the time of the Old Testament.
Although there are these distinctions and further divisions within these groups about how to approach their faith, Fink said Judaism is different than some other major religious groups because there is no authority figure who guides Jews as a whole. Each synagogue and rabbi is an island unto itself and sets its own rules and ways of worshiping.
“People sometimes come to me and they say, ‘I like what you do, but I have a problem with organized religion.' And my response is, 'You’ll like us because we’re not organized at all,” he said. “In certain religious traditions, like the Catholic church, they have a pope, or in the LDS church, they have a council of elders. So there is somebody who can say, 'This is the policy.' But we have nobody like that in the Jewish world.”
By 2003, the synagogue was hemmed in on all sides by development in downtown Boise. Fink said there was barely room for a handful of cars in the parking lot and no available land nearby to purchase for an additional building, more parking or any expansion of any kind.
This led to a vote by the congregation on whether or not to move the building itself to a new location. Support for moving the synagogue prevailed by a large margin, though some members strongly objected.
“Jews are an argumentative people,” Fink said, referencing the decision to move. “We like to argue. We have 3,000 years of arguing with ourselves, so there is nothing you can do Jewishly and get to 100% (agreement). I’ve been a rabbi for almost 40 years, and you’re never going to get 100%. We’re used to that.”
Since the synagogue moved to its new location on a spacious lot on Latah Street, Fink said the community has worked hard to build relationships with nearby neighbors. One of the synagogue's first moves on its new property was to create a community garden, which is now farmed predominantly by refugees who live in a nearby apartment complex. This relationship led to a tutoring program and other outreach to the new Americans to help them settle into their new lives in Idaho.
'MORE THAN TOLERANCE'
For the synagogue’s 125th anniversary, congregation members are focusing their energy on social action causes, such as their belief in the importance of welcoming refugees and immigrants and climate change. There is also an initiative where the congregation will be completing 125 acts of kindness for Boise. Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel Board President Amy Duque said the goal for the year is to give back to Boise.
“We feel safe here and cared for, and there’s camaraderie and friendship here, more than tolerance,” Duque said. “There’s welcome and there’s embrace. We want Boise to know we’re grateful for that. The events we plan for the year and visibility we’ll have during this anniversary time, that’s what we want to convey.”
The safety Jews say they have found in Boise comes amidst a rise of anti-Semitism nationwide and a rash of violence at the end of 2019. This included a machete attack in a New York suburb in the home of a Hasidic rabbi that left five people injured, and a shooting in a Jewish supermarket in New Jersey where two men were killed. A little over a year ago, an anti-Semitic shooter in Pittsburgh killed 11 people and wounded six at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018.
According to a report from The Hill, nearly 60% of religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S. were inspired by hatred toward Jews in 2018. The Anti-Defamation League, a group that advocates against anti-Semitism, recorded 1,879 incidents against Jews in that same year.
Fink said despite the rise in hateful speech against Jews, the synagogue has remained open and welcoming to everyone, although they did receive a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to beef up security on their property. Tamara Ansotegui, Ahavath Beth Israel's executive director, would not comment specifically on what security was added but said the grant could be used for fences, security gates, guards for up to three years, lighting and surveillance equipment.
“(Anti-Semitism) concerns us as Jews, and I think it should concern everybody because Jews are part of the culture, we’re everybody’s neighbors and friends and family and because anti-Semitism has historically been a sign of a civilization in decline,” Fink said. “It behooves us for a bunch of reasons to pay attention.”
Dan Prinzing, the executive director of the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights in downtown Boise, echoed Fink’s calls to fight anti-Semitism and any other kinds of hate speech or crimes throughout the world.
“What we’ve seen as late is an emboldening of white nationalism in a spirit where there’s almost an attitude of, ‘I can do as I please and I can say as I please and I can target those who I view as vulnerable,'” he said. “This is a time for all of us to step up and speak out. What type of a country are we? What are the rights and the responsibilities we all hold dear?”
Idaho has a nationwide reputation as being a refuge for white supremacy and hate groups due to the presence of the neo-Nazi, Aryan Nations compound near Coeur D’Alene in the 1990s and other groups. But Fink said in his time in the Gem State, he has almost always experienced acceptance from Boiseans.
“There are more people who are completely unfamiliar with Jews and Jewish customs and tradition (here),” he said. “Not anti-Jewish, not xenophobic, but a little more unaware. I’ve found people eager to learn and be educated. Overwhelmingly we’ve found the community to be welcoming.”