Utah’s Jewish Pioneers

Mormons And Jews Got Along Okay In Early Days

By Les Goates, Church Information Service
This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 1972 edition of Pioneer Magazine

Since American Jewry entered its tercentenary in 1950’s, a number of histories have seen the light of print on the Jews in the United States, both countrywide and in various communities. None of these early volumes found a place for Utah and the Valley of the Great Salt Lake until Leon L. Watters, in 1955, writing for the American Jewish Historical Society, produced a most informative book: The Pioneer Jews of Utah.

Dr. Watters gives the Jewish people a prominent place in Utah history in a commonwealth practically owned and controlled by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Mormon), with Brigham Young as the social and intellectual leader as well as president and prophet.

The Jews, as the historian records, played a prominent and eventful part in Utah pioneer history. These “interlopers” as some called them, experienced all the hardships and perils from nature and the Indians, as did the Mormon pioneers, attendant upon crossing the plains prior to the coming of the transcontinental railroad, also the perils and robberies which were endured by those who came to “Deseret” Territory by way of Panama or the Cape to California.

They endured no privileges along the way, nor did they sit around and rest once they reached their western destination. They often times went back the vast distances to fetch a bride, to meet family members upon their arrival from Europe, even back to Germany or Austria, or to arrange for mercantile goods to be shipped out west. “Their vitality and enterprise was astonishing,” wrote Dr. Watters.

They Liked The Place

“Most of them did not settle in Utah until they had followed the mining booms through Nevada, Montana and Colorado. In quest of permanence, they had ‘knocked around’ mainly in the wake of the ‘gold rush’ of ’49. In Utah they were content to stay; they liked the place and the people.”

This was a natural reaction because no other people, organization or church, has as much in common with them as do the Mormons. The Jews have been driven, robbed and ravished; so have the Mormons. The Jews have been driven from their homes to desolation beyond the boundaries of their country; so have the Mormons. Moreover, the religious hierarchy of the Mormons had many points of resemblance to that of the Israelites of the Hebrew scriptures.

Aside from the religious aspects, there is a startling similarity in the character and topography of the region which Brigham Young selected in the Salt Lake Valley, for the Mormon settlement, to that settled by the ancient Israelites in Palestine. The name “Zion,” “The New Jerusalem” and “The Holy Land” appear frequently in Mormon literature.

The Prophet Joseph Smith, during the winter of 1835-1836 in Kirtland, along with other leaders, devoted much of their attention to a formal study of Hebrew, under a competent scholar and an impressive teacher. They sat three nights a week in a schoolroom and did their homework. This brief association with one Professor Seixas had effects, immediate and permanent, in places in Mormon scripture and in research studies by Latter-day Saint scholars today.

Dr. Neibur First

Utah’s Jewish PioneersDr. Watters gives an impressive list of Jewish pioneers who made their homes in Salt Lake City, when and where they came from and how they made the trip. The first Jew to live in Utah was Alexander Neibaur, dentist, a convert who came in 1848,.The Gerson Brookses came in 1854, and other “Gentile” Jews, as the Mormons called all non-Christians, came in 1858-59 and 1864-70.

The relationship between these dates and the presence and departure of Johnston’s Armv (1857-60) and the presence of Colonel Conner and his men at Fort Douglas (from 1863) is explained in the Watters book. For, the soldiers, buying and selling, like the people of the wagon trains who were using Salt Lake City as a “half-way house” between East and West, found here their only trading opportunity.

Quite naturally it was in the field of merchandising that Utah’s pioneer Jew’s made their greatest contribution to the community. The most distinguished merchants of the day were the Auerbach brothers who shaped what has become a great and colorful tradition in Utah merchandising.

Frederick H. Auerbach drove up the State Road from Austin, Nevada, with a wagon load of merchandise in 1864, and camped at the Henry Heath place near the City Center. A few days later he visited Pres. Brigham Young who walked with him down Main Street some three blocks and east a block, to help him select a location for a store, the first business enterprise founded by a Jew in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Moves To The Rear

Brigham told a carpenter who had occupied a one-room adobe house, to move his stuff to the rear and to make shelving and counters for Auerbach’s new store. Strangely, Pres. Young was president and chairman of the board of directors of Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) now generally acclaimed as America’s first and one of its largest department stores.

Frederick Auerbach’s brother, Samuel, shortly afterward followed from Rabbit Creek, Calif. bringing additional goods. Soon the store was crowded with merchandise and had to be enlarged to make room for larger stocks—men’s clothing, hats, shoes, bolts of linen and calicos, tickings, ribbons, notions, stoves, hardwares, wallpaper, farming and mining tools, groceries and other things. also was conducting a pioneer department store business in both Salt Lake and Ogden in 1865.

Auerbachs had a pioneer store as early as 1857 in California—a fact that established the Auerbach company as the oldest department store in the Pacific Coast as well as one of the largest. Nor were the Auerbachs the only Jewish merchants to exercise an abiding influence on pioneer trade in the Mormon’s “Promised Valley.” Some of these early shopkeepers preserved and prospered and their names, after a century of tough competition, are still trademarks over the doors of prosperous establishments to this day. Participation of the Jewish merchants in the “Gentile” city of Corrine in 1869, as an alternate to Salt Lake City, provides another chapter in the story of pioneer Jewish merchandising.

Community Cooperation

Jews and Mormons in those days cooperated pleasantly in community and religious observances. The Jewish pioneers had their problems in these activities. They came as individuals prepared to continue their traditional rites; they observed the Passover and the Feast of Weeks, as well as the New Year and the Day of Atonement. On the latter two most solemn holidays they closed their businesses and by courtesy of Brigham Young (1867-1868), Church buildings were made available. But they desired to have a synagogue.Congregation B’nai Israel was founded in 1881, and the first synagogue was dedicated in 1883. Within a year the majority turned from Orthodoxy to Reform, favoring a modernized ritual.

It was quite inconceivable that the “Mormon State” would elect a Jew as governor. This it did in 1916 when Simon Bamberger, an industrialist was chosen for the gubernatorial office.

Most popular Jewish citizen, especially with Mormons, was Herbert S. Auerbach—merchant, civic leader, connoisseur of the arts and a poet. He held numerous positions in the cultural fields. Many of his classic verses were set to music by his closest friend, Anthony C. Lund, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and are still being sung by soloists, choirs and quartets in many lands. He was the only one of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers who was not a member of the Church to become president of this national society.

In a community wherein “all the brethren are Saints, all the outsiders are sinners and all the Jews are Gentiles,” as was said by Albert D. Richardson in his book Beyond the Mississippi, the pioneer Mormons and the pioneer Jews got along pleasingly well.

Auerbach’s Department Store, Salt Lake City

The Auerbach Department Store in Salt Lake City is now 107 years old. The tiny, crude shop of F. Auerbach & Bros. was opened early in 1864 at a location on upper Main Street selected for the Auerbach Brothers by Pres. Brigham Young.

One hundred and seven years is a long time in the activity of any business concern. Few of the old-time business houses in the Beehive State, or anywhere for that matter, have survived 100 years, especially under one-family control and management.

The Auerbach Company was the first and the largest mercantile establishment to be founded and managed by the most prominent of the Utah pioneer Jewish families. The firm has done honor to its founders Frederick H. and Samuel H. Auerbach and their successors through the early years: George S., Frederick S. and Herbert S. Auerbach.

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