When you hear the name Idaho, you might picture fields of potatoes, vistas of jagged mountaintops, high-desert clusters of grazing sheep and — unfortunately — the stain of bigotry. You’d be accurate on three of four counts.
But look again. Idaho’s reputation as a bastion of the Aryan Nations and other Nazi sympathizers is undeserved.
Idaho was the first state to elect a Jewish governor — Moses Alexander, in 1915. Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise worships in the oldest, longest-used synagogue building west of the Mississippi. The Idaho Human Rights Education Center has a rich history of collaboration with the state’s Jewish community and its allies, all of whom combined efforts to build the beautiful Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise; it remains the only monument to Anne Frank in America.
These are just a few examples that counteract any vestige of the infamous former “compound,” north of Hayden Lake, occupied by the Aryan Nations from the 1970s through 2001. Predictably, that group imploded due to its own misguided militancy: An Idaho jury awarded compensatory damages of $6.3 million to a woman and her son who were beaten with rifles when their car stopped near the compound in 1998. Soon after, the Aryan Nations were gone, defeated and scattered among locations far from the Gem State.
Now, the former site of hatred is home to a peace park. And Idaho is becoming known as a place that champions human rights.
Currently, The College of Idaho, in Caldwell, is working to create a Chair in Judaic Studies, the first of its kind in the Intermountain West. The position, a permanent professorship, would provide a full component of courses on Jewish history and texts, public seminars and lectures, community and interfaith outreach efforts, and study- abroad opportunities. It will offer a unique opportunity for the college to address all elements of Jewish studies, beyond the two courses it currently offers.
College of Idaho President Marvin Henberg notes that the task is daunting. To fully endow the Chair will take approximately $2.2 million. However, he said, “We believe in improbabilities. We’re on a rural campus, in a small town in a conservative state with a small Jewish population. [But] we’re not going to stop until [the establishment of the Chair in Judaic Studies] is done and we have proclaimed our commitment to human rights in Caldwell, Idaho.”
The vision began with a beloved history professor at the college, Howard Berger, who since 1982 has quietly acquainted hundreds of students with an understanding of Judaism. For most, the introduction provides a contrast and unique context with which to consider their own religious and cultural perspectives.
Berger’s courses on National Socialism/The Final Solution and on Jewish History are now considered “must experience” courses. Indeed, his former students are the ones who suggested the college pursue a way to honor Berger’s career and expand his influence. To date, alumni have led the effort financially, donating virtually all $300,000 the development campaign has received to date.
Alumnus Tim Talbott cited the “passion and fearlessness in the way Dr. Berger teaches and lives his life, [which] draws largely from his relationship to Jewish history ... [its] hope, inspiration, perseverance that overcomes tragedy and, most importantly, humor.”
Ray Neilsen, chairman of Ameristar Casinos, credited Berger with “concern, guidance and wisdom that literally changed my life ... introducing me to cultures and concepts that we hardly knew about living in Idaho.”
The Jewish presence in Idaho is small, but its vibrancy and cultural legacy have long been noteworthy. It started in the early mining camps of the 1860s. As the state was settled, the community grew and built a synagogue in Boise of Moorish design in 1896.
Today, the congregation is composed of over 200 families. Rabbi Daniel Fink said, “When you come here, you immediately can and will make a difference. The [congregation] is built and run on the effort of all the Jewish individuals and families here. It creates a tremendous energy.”
The College of Idaho’s beginnings were inauspicious and improbable when, in 1891, the state was new, and 19 students showed up for classes at the Caldwell Presbyterian Church. Since then, the small private college has focused on the liberal arts and consistently produced some of Idaho’s finest graduates, including six Rhodes scholars, three governors, a Pulitzer Prize winner and four National Science Foundation fellows.
“I came to Caldwell in the fall of 1982, and by Thanksgiving I’d fallen in love with this little college,” Berger said. “The students are what make it so wonderful.”
Berger turns 60 this summer, celebrating with a pilgrimage to Masada, the ancient, isolated fortress overlooking the Dead Sea. Students and colleagues will join him in marking what he calls a place of persistence.
“I like it because I’m in awe of the quality of endurance,” Berger said of the College of Idaho as well as of what Masada represents to the Jewish people. “We both shouldn’t still be around. We’ve come out of the desert. We’ve been buffeted by challenges. We’ve endured.”
To support the creation of a Chair in Judaic Studies at The College of Idaho, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu or call (208) 459-5300