SHERIDAN — On Sunday night, Zachary Bergman, 4, began celebrating his first Hanukkah in Wyoming. He’ll bring a menorah to his preschool classroom at First Light Children’s Center and will say prayers, eat latkes and spin the dreidel at home with his family.
But to get to a synagogue and observe the holiday with other Jews, he and his family would need to drive the 136 miles to Congregation Beth Aaron in Billings, Montana. They made the trek for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the more major holidays.
Zachary’s mother, Rachel Bergman, said that as Jews, they’re accustomed to being in the minority.
The Jewish community in northern Wyoming is so small it’s almost negligible.
Wyoming has an estimated 430 Jewish residents, according to city-data.com.
The couple moved to the area in August from Centerville, Virginia. Northern Virginia is diverse in every sense of the word: racially, religiously, linguistically. Both Rachel Bergman and her husband, Mark, taught music at George Mason University. He now teaches strings at Sheridan College.
In their short time here, the Bergmans have encountered a couple of fellow Jews. Their new pediatrician, for instance, suspected that 9-year-old Avi — the older of the two siblings — was Jewish and asked him the four traditional questions of Passover, which explain the holiday.
And when a local insurance agent came by to look at Mark Bergman’s car after a fender bender, he, too, chatted up Bergman about being Jewish in Wyoming. The couple named a few more Jews they know in the area — one in Buffalo, another in Sheridan.
But coming from northern Virginia and George Mason University — at one point named the most diverse campus in the nation by The Princeton Review — the Bergmans find themselves at a new level of isolation from their religious community.
“I think the challenge is that we really need to be proactive about making sure that we have a sense of Jewish identity in our family,” Mark Bergman said.
His wife agreed.
“I think it’s important for them to know there are other Jews, you know, out there,” she said. “They’re not the only ones.
Avi, sitting across the table, already knew this.
“Of course,” he chimed in. “There are like 3,000 other Jews.”
“There are 14 million other Jews in the world,” his father said.
The parents said both kids’ schools — Meadowlark Elementary and First Light, a private, Christian preschool — have worked to incorporate Jewish elements into their classroom lessons and activities.
“We’ve been very impressed,” Rachel Bergman said.
“People in Sheridan are very friendly,” her husband added.
Tom Sachse, assistant superintendent for curriculum for Sheridan County School District 2, said that if teachers plan to incorporate religious elements into classroom activities, the district urges them to provide a balance.
“We encourage our teachers to provide inclusive environments that work to represent a diversity of cultures and interests,” he said in an email exchange with The Sheridan Press. “We try to be as inclusive and sensitive to these matters as we can be.”
Hanukkah might be one of the lesser holidays on the Jewish calendar, but Mark Bergman said that’s different if you’re a kid.
“When you’re 9 and 4, it’s the biggest date on the Jewish calendar,” he said. The Bergman sons open a present each day of the 8-day holiday.
In Billings, too, the Jewish community is relatively small. Avi is often just one of three or four students in his religious studies class.
The Bergmans agree that the move to Sheridan means they have to make a bigger effort to instill their religious values in their kids. For instance, while Avi went to religious studies class once a week in Virginia, he and his brother now use workbooks at home to study Hebrew, prayers and ethics.
The family practices Reform Judaism, which emphasizes social justice. So to push that theme at home, Avi must set aside $1 from his weekly allowance for tzedakah, or charity. With another dollar going to college savings, Avi wonders why his parents even give him $5 in the first place. Why not just the $3 he’ll get to keep?
Perhaps when he’s a bit older he’ll understand the lesson.