Magazine Feature / People

Abrams delves into lives of pioneering Jewish women

After growing up and attending college in New York, Jeanne Abrams was awed by the wide-open space and the “tremendous feeling of the possibilities” when she arrived in Colorado in 1973.

In her new book, Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail, A History in the West (New York University Press, 2006), she explores that feeling of unlimited opportunity through the experiences of Jewish women in the early American West, focusing on their integral role in areas of social welfare and progressive reform.

“Given the still-forming social landscape, beginning with the 1848 Gold Rush, Jews were able to integrate more fully into local communities than they had in the East,” says Abrams, associate professor at Penrose Library and director of the Beck Archives and Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society.

“Jewish women in the West took advantage of the unsettled nature of the region to open new doors for themselves in ways often not yet possible elsewhere in the country, where there were already established social circles and levels of society.”

Abrams gathered information for her book from hundreds of primary and secondary sources such as diaries, photos, letters and memoirs.

Released in late September, Abrams’ book — though academic — seeks to intrigue readers with inspiring stories of women like Frances Wisebart Jacobs, Denver’s “Mother of Charities” and the impetus behind the creation of the National Jewish Hospital and the organization that is now the United Way; and Florence Prag Kahn of San Francisco, who in 1925 became the first Jewish congresswoman in the nation.

The book explores how Jewish women helped build the early Jewish communities and institutions, their impact on social welfare, how they embraced education and their involvement in politics, particularly women’s suffrage.

“What is also rather remarkable is that in a region where they could have blended into the landscape in a religious sense, a number of these early Western Jewish women played a pivotal role in sustaining and transmitting traditional Judaism,” says Abrams, an Orthodox Jew.

In 1893, 17-year-old Jewish journalist Alice Friedlander eloquently described the West’s unlimited possibilities, Abrams says. When asked to speak before the Portland Press Club, Friedlander began: “This is a woman’s golden era … The time is near when women will vote and hold office … The law, medicine, education — every walk in life requiring intellectual rather than manual force — is wide open to the women of America.”

“While many would have found Alice’s words somewhat naive and overly optimistic, for Alice the promise seemed very real,” Abrams says.

Abrams’ book is available at and

This article originally appeared in The Source, December 2006.

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