Being a Jewish teen in a city where few people share her faith is hard at times for East sophomore Nathalia Rap. But she's found a way to make it work.
By Josh Rhoten
Nathalia Rap is 16 years old.
She talks in rapid-fire spurts, punctuated by short bursts of laughter that are extremely contagious. A sophomore at Cheyenne's East High, she is bubbly and outgoing. She also is one of the few Jewish teenagers in Cheyenne. But she is very comfortable with that fact.
For her, it simply means she must work a little harder to keep her faith, and occasionally endure a little curious questioning from friends and classmates.
"Living here is sort of hard, because we can't get the kosher meats (which are clean and permissible under Jewish laws and customs) and stuff. But it is hard, as well, because I think me and my brother are the only two who practice Judaism at East," she says. "Also, we don't really have too many people we can go to and talk with about our religion, which makes it hard."
When Rap lists her classmates' reactions to her religion, it is with a slight chuckle as she details their puzzled delight at finding out she is Jewish.
"It's not really a big deal to me or a secret or something. I mean, when it comes up, my friends are kind of surprised and like, 'No way!' I guess they didn't really expect it or something," she says.
She gets a lot of questions about Christmas and what she does for Hanukkah when comparing notes on religion with her friends. Occasionally, someone will ask her about Jesus.
"When it comes up, I just sort of explain that we don't have the New Testament, and the discussion sort of goes from there," she says.
The only time she has felt uncomfortable with her heritage came during an in-class discussion of the Holocaust.
"All of a sudden, I just kind of felt like all eyes were on me. It may not be that way, but it was how I felt. It's not that I am embarrassed about my heritage or anything like that, it was just kind of uncomfortable," she says.
Rap and her family attend Mt. Sinai Synagogue on Pioneer Avenue regularly. There, she takes Israeli and Jewish dance classes and works with younger kids during Sunday school lessons, teaching them the Hebrew alphabet.
Farthest outpost in the Jewish Diaspora
Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman leans back in his chair. Well beyond the first entrance to Mt. Sinai Synagogue, his office is neat and comfortable, matching his style and personality.
Karz-Wagman was recently installed as the first full-time rabbi in Cheyenne in 22 years. In his new role, he hopes to help the synagogue regain prominence in the community and work with churches in Cheyenne on similar goals, like reducing poverty and helping the homeless.
He says he understands the challenges Rap faces because they are the same his sons faced when they were growing up in Hot Springs, Ark., a town similar to Cheyenne in size.
"Growing up in that kind of environment, I think you have to work for your faith a little more," he says. "I mean, you tend to question it more, to look at it in a different light, because it is not all around you with everyone doing it."
Karz-Wagman argues that those who are brought up in traditional Jewish communities, where the artifacts, traditions and lifestyle are all around them, tend to take the religion as standard practice.
They don't question their faith or interact with other faiths as much as those from small communities who are faced with their uniqueness on a daily basis.
He says young Jews like Rap, who grow up in smaller communities, often wind up valuing their faith more than others.
"It becomes something very valuable and strong if they are able to keep it," he says. "They have to want it, and think about what it means. They are, often times, 'the Jew' in the class. So they wind up getting a lot of questions and comments, and it forces them not to take it for granted in a lot of ways.
"Being isolated like we are really forces some difficult questions internally, as well," he says. "You really have to work at it, and it makes you stronger in your beliefs."
Wyoming is considered one of the farthest outposts in the Jewish Diaspora; in other words, the farthest distance from Israel during the Jewish dispersal. Their arrival into the area is tied with the immigration growth the country experienced around 1910.
In the early years of immigration, families from Poland, Russia and Hungary began to move into the West, including Wyoming, with the promise of free land through the Homestead Act. Those families would eventually lay the groundwork for what would be come Mt. Sinai Synagogue, as well as other places of Jewish worship across Wyoming.
Karz-Wagman says there are normally about two or three Jewish students per grade level locally, which leads to some of the separation Rap mentioned.
"One thing I want to start doing is getting the youth involved in our congregation up here tied with the groups that exist in Denver," he says. "I think that would really help in terms of making sure they know they are not alone. There are other kids their age a couple hours away.
"Sometimes it can feel like you are really separated and there isn't anyone else like you, but that isn't the case at all."
Rap says a youth group like the one Karz-Wagman envisions would be a great resource for her and others her age.
"It would definitely help me see what else is out there in terms of different synagogues and religious styles. I mean, I already see a lot of different synagogues with my mom because she is in rabbinical studies. But it would help with knowing there are other kids my age around, and that this (being Jewish) isn't weird," Rap says.
Just another family on the high plains
Rap's parents talk with the ease and comfort most Wyoming and Middle America residents possess.
Shira Michael sits slightly on her side, leaning forward, with a smile to light the room. Her husband, Craig Michael, sits with quiet anticipation. A spray pilot by trade, he travels a lot among the Western states.
Their hands touch lightly, and when one laughs, the other is not far behind. It is the same laugh Rap has and uses so often.
"The people who are surprised about a Jewish community in Cheyenne, Wyoming are the people who don't live here," Shira Michael says. "When we go and visit New York, the people there sort of take a step back and say, 'I didn't know there were Jews in Wyoming,' and I always tell them, 'Well there isn't until I get back.' They can't believe we would choose to do this because it is isolated."
Both are well aware this is not a thriving Jewish community and that it could be hard on a teenager of that faith. But they make it work because they love the city, and it is their home.
Shira was raised in Cheyenne.
"There is a lot to love about the area," she says. "There isn't a lot of prejudice or things like that. In fact, I think it is a really accepting community. The state is like one big town, and everyone sort of gets along with everyone else."
Both know the difficulties and limitations of growing up in Cheyenne for their daughter and her brother.
"She is very involved with the synagogue, but I think she loves Denver and wants to live in a big city," Shira says.
Both agree the distance between them and other, larger Jewish communities can create a feeling of isolation. Like Karz-Wagman, they cite the closeness of Denver and the Internet as ways to ease the distance.
"When I was growing up, it was one of those delicious things to go into a Jewish bookstore in Denver and pick stuff out," Shira says. "Now we can have things shipped from Israel right to our doorstep. So, in that sense, it is a little easier to live here than before."
The synagogue: Rap's spot to shine
It's Sunday afternoon, and the multipurpose room at the synagogue is full of dance music.
Men and women dance in a circle, with their activities periodically interrupted by dance instructor Bea Montross' demonstrations of new choreographed moves.
Most are graying, but all are smiling.
It is in this environment that Shira Michael says Rap shines.
Montross has taught her for about five years and has only glowing reviews of her talents.
"She is a natural. I never taught her how to dance; I just taught her the moves. She picked it up from the second I started working with her," she says.
The members of the class are currently working on Israeli dancing, but have learned and performed traditional Jewish dances as well. Those steps were passed down from generation to generation as part of their heritage. And Rap considers the afternoon activity as important as the Sunday school classes she helps with beforehand.
One of the youngest in the room, she said the cultural and faith aspects of her religion are both extremely important to her.
"I think it is important to keep it up, both the cultural side and the spiritual aspect. Both of them center me," she says. "I like dancing in general, and this is a way for me to connect with my heritage. I connect with prayers in the morning and evening with my faith, but the dancing is just as important."
The connection to traditions is something she tries to pass on during the Sunday school sessions, where she teaches some dances and works with the youngest group on the Hebrew alphabet.
"One of the youngest ones came up to me the other day and asked how I knew so much of this stuff, and I laughed a little and told him because I had been studying it for so long," Rap says. "They look up to me because of that, and I think it is really important to help teach them those things."
Like other teens, Rap is indecisive about what the future holds for her faith and life in general.
Either way, she is realistic.
"I think when you get a little older, you question your faith a little more. So when I get to college, I guess it could go either way with me distancing myself from being Jewish or really trying hard to stay with it," she says. "I guess I don't really know yet. But it is a really big part of my life right now."