When Idaho Welcomed 17 Jewish Refugees

A century ago, amidst the greatest wave of immigration in Jewish history, seventeen refugees made their way from the Russian Empire to the wilds of Idaho. They were assisted in their westward journey by the Industrial Removal Office, a short-lived and long-forgotten aid organization — one whose history offers a fascinating window into the challenges faced by the American Jewish community during a moment of great consequence. This is their story.

Unprecedented Immigration

Most Jewish immigrants lived, at least for some time after their arrival, in New York City. The neighborhoods in which they settled quickly became overcrowded. By 1900, the city’s Lower East Side was home to more than 500,000 Jews, making it both the world’s largest Jewish community and the world’s most densely-populated neighborhood.

In addition to overcrowding, the Lower East Side also endured poor sanitation, concentrated poverty, high rates of disease and crime, and nearly half the city’s deaths by fire. Jacob Riis, a photographer who famously shined a spotlight on tenement life in his 1890 publication How the Other Half Lives, wrote that he “found in three rooms father, mother, twelve children, and six boarders. They sleep on the half-made clothing for beds.” He added that many of the children in the neighborhood “had never seen the Brooklyn Bridge that was scarcely five minutes’ walk away. The street, with its ash-barrels and its dirt, the river that runs foul with mud, are their domain.”

This Lower East Side street scene captures the density that once characterized the neighborhood, which was home to the largest Jewish community in the world in 1900. (Image credit: Tenement Museum)

Leaders in the American Jewish community offered several responses to the problems posed by immigrant life in New York. Many advocated for mutual aid, establishing orphanages, homes for widows and the elderly, and organizations like HIAS that provided immigrants with professional training and English language classes. Others advocated for reducing overcrowding by “deflecting” immigrants away from New York, either by moving them elsewhere or rerouting new arrivals through other ports of entry, like Galveston, Texas.

Industrial Removal

In order to attract participants to the resettlement program, the IRO stationed agents on Ellis Island, set up a storefront recruiting center in the Lower East Side, and placed ads in newspapers. They particularly targeted young, male immigrants who were experiencing economic hardship, promising to cover the cost of their move and help identify a well-paying job and short-term lodging for them in their new city.

Industrial Removal Office business cards were in both English and Yiddish. (Image credit: American Jewish Historical Society)

At the same time, the IRO sent agents across the country to identify cities willing to accept Jewish refugees. They often enlisted the cooperation of local Jewish communities, including synagogues and B’nai B’rith lodges, to secure housing and employment.

According to internal IRO records, 79% of participants in the resettlement program were men — most of whom moved alone — and the average age at removal was 28 years old. 75% of them had fled from Russia while the remainder were from other countries in eastern and southern Europe.

In 1921, the United States government introduced a national quota system that sharply reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the country, leading the IRO to shut its doors the following year. But during its 20 years of operation, the IRO successfully resettled 79,000 Jewish individuals from New York to more than 1,000 other towns and cities in the United States, transforming lives and communities in the process.

This map, compiled by researchers at UCLA and Stanford, shows the geographic breadth of the towns and cities to which the Industrial Removal Office resettled refugees. (Image credit: Ran Abramitzky, Leah Boustan, and Dylan Connor)

Idaho Awaits

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the state’s only Jewish community was in Boise. The Wood River Valley had hosted a thriving Jewish community in the 1880s, but it was decimated by a mining bust in the 1890s which drove ambitious prospectors and merchants elsewhere. Boise, by contrast, had survived the mining bust and was home to several dozen Jews and a brand new synagogue around the turn of the century.

In 1903, as the IRO considered Boise as a potential destination for resettling Jewish immigrants, the agency wrote to Moses Alexander. Alexander was a German Jewish merchant who served as head of the city’s Jewish community and had just concluded two terms as mayor of Boise. “We have not as yet done as much with the communities in the Far West,” the IRO wrote to Alexander from New York, “and in order that we do not overtax our friends in the Middle West and in the South, the co-operation of cities in your part of the country would be most desirable.”

In a later letter, the IRO added: “The immigration of our people into this country is gradually increasing at an alarming rate and extraordinary efforts must be made on the part of all Jewish communities to cooperate with us in order to meet this problem manfully. May we therefore ask you to be so kind as to let us know what you can do for us, that is to say how many families you can take at the present time for whom there is promise of independence and self-support.”

Alexander did not provide the IRO with a specific number of families, but he wrote back to them several times to arrange transportation and payment for specific individuals. For example, the agency archive contains 10 letters from November and December 1903 in which Alexander and the IRO coordinated the resettlement of a 26 year old Jewish refugee named Abram Jukofsky.

Jukofsky, who had arrived in New York from Russia four months earlier, had trouble finding steady employment and asked for help moving to Boise, where his uncle already lived. Alexander wrote to the IRO insisting that Jukofsky bring his wife if he were to come at all. “We people here do not desire to separate man and wife and wish to bear no part in such a transaction as that,” he made clear. “Under no circumstances do we desire that he should come by himself and leave his wife in New York to struggle along the best she can and after a while probably have to return back home.”

After investigating the matter, the IRO reported that Jukofsky’s wife was still in Russia, so they sent him to Boise alone shortly after Christmas 1903. In return, Alexander collected a payment of $37 from Jukofsky’s local uncle and mailed it to the IRO to cover the cost of the journey.

This note from Moses Alexander in Boise to the Industrial Removal Office in New York is one of several that survives in the agency’s archive. (Image credit: American Jewish Historical Society)

Others Follow to Idaho

In addition to the refugees sent to Boise, the IRO also sent refugees to Rupert in the southern portion of the state and Deary in the north. All of them were from Russia and all the adults were between 20 and 30 years old. Based on IRO resettlement patterns elsewhere, it is likely that some of the refugees chose to stay in Idaho permanently while others eventually moved back to New York or to different locations across the American West.

During the same twenty-year period that the IRO operated, dozens of Jews found their way to Idaho on their own without the organization’s assistance. Boise’s Jewish community grew so fast that, in 1912, a second synagogue was established in the city. The new congregation was Orthodox and made up largely of Russian Jews, while the earlier congregation was Reform and mostly German. In 1913, the city’s leaders reported to the IRO that they now had two synagogues, a B’nai B’rith lodge, easily-obtained kosher meat, and a community of approximately 200 Jews out of a total city population of 25,000 — just under 1%.

A century later, the story of the Industrial Removal Office offers an interesting window into a critical moment in American Jewish history, teaching us about the ways that our forebears — in Idaho and across the nation — rose to meet an enormous challenge. It was due both to organizations like the IRO and to ordinary Jewish Americans like Abram Jukofsy’s uncle that an American Jewish community of just 250,000 people was able to assimilate two and a half million newcomers between 1881 and 1924. Accommodating ten-fold population growth in a 40 year period required creativity, grit, and most of all, compassion.

The story of the Russian Jews who ended up in Idaho also offers us an example of the way that Jewish events around the world have affected our state. Despite Idaho’s isolated location and small Jewish population, antisemitic pogroms in Russia profoundly reshaped our community. Later events, including the Holocaust, also impacted Idaho — although that is an account for another time. From each, we are reminded that we are part of a global Jewish story.

This essay was originally published in the spring 2022 edition of the Wood River Jewish Community’s quarterly magazine, The Shofar.

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Ari Goldstein

Writing about Jewish history and identity. Penn Law student. Previously at the Genesis Prize, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and Georgetown.