Barb Watters is not only the new mayor of Casper, Wyoming, she’s also the savior of the city’s Jewish community.
Watters is president of Temple Beth El, the only synagogue in Casper, and she’s now only a class away from becoming a Reform movement-sanctioned Jewish community emissary. This, of course, all after entering uncharted territory in January by becoming the first Jew to hold the top spot in Wyoming’s largest city.
If things ever get out of hand at the city’s lone synagogue — or at City Hall or at home, which Watters shares with her husband, Mark, and their two children, ages 20 and 15 — Casper’s new mayor can draw from her experience as a Casper policewoman to straighten things out.
“Barb is a great example to Jews,” says Rachel Komerofsky, director of outreach at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which runs the course Watters is taking to become a community leader. The program, called Sh’liah K’hilah, trains lay persons in leading Shabbat and holiday services and meeting communities’ life cycle needs.
Watters’ leadership positions — in government and in shul — are the culmination of an interesting, if unusual, career path.
Twenty-four years ago, the Ohioan traded her familiar digs in the Buckeye State for the Rocky Mountains to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Those days, Watters says, landing a job in criminal justice was difficult unless you were white and male. So in 1980, when she saw an advertisement from the Casper Police Department, she applied and was hired.
“I went to Casper not knowing anyone,” she says, but she moved because it was a great opportunity to gain valuable on-the-job experience. She describes the Casper of the early 1980s as “Godforsaken.”
“There was tumbleweed blowing down the middle of Center Street,” she says.
What was worse, the social scene for single Jewish women in Casper was bleak, to say the least.
“It was tough to meet eligible men,” Watters recalls.
Fortunately, a thoughtful police sergeant on Watters’ squad paired the rookie with his brother, who also was eligible, Jewish and looking for love. The couple went out on their first blind date in October 1981, and they were married in August 1982.
Watters retired from the force a decade later for stress-related reasons, and she began spending more and more time at the local temple.
Not long afterward, however, Temple Beth El fell into disarray when its main lay leader moved back East. Some members wanted to close the temple, but Watters and Sam Wiseman — who had taken over as lay leader after his son, the former lay leader, moved away — insisted on keeping the temple alive. They eventually prevailed.
“Without Barb there wouldn’t be a temple,” Wiseman says.
But Watters grew anxious about the temple’s heavy reliance on Wiseman, a relative newcomer to Casper from New York who was the only one in town who could lead services. If he left or could not leave services for some reason, the temple would be in trouble.
“I started wondering what would happen to us,” she says. “We can’t afford a rabbi.”
Somebody had to make sure the Jewish community in Casper was there to stay. Watters, never one to shirk from her civic duty, stepped up, enrolling in the HUC synagogue associate program, Sh’liah K’hilah, to get the Judaic education and confidence she needed to assume a larger temple leadership role.
But getting to class would not be easy.
Classes are held in Cincinnati, and the program is limited to 35 students. To achieve certification, students must take two Judaic Studies courses, online or in person, sponsored by an accredited college or university. They must also participate in four days of practical training at one of two Reform movement institutions and demonstrate Hebrew- language skills in prayer or speech, according Komerofsky.
Though they are not rabbis, graduates of the program learn the skills and knowledge necessary to oversee many of the religious needs of a Reform community, Komerofsky says. For example, they may officiate at funerals, baby namings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and Shabbat services, but they cannot preside over weddings or conversions — and are discouraged from doing counseling.
“We also discourage them to refrain from counseling,” Komerofsky says.
Komerofsky, who met Watters in 2001, describes Casper’s mayor as the “ideal representative of our program, because she’s the perfect example of lifelong learning.”
Watters says, “I am now able to ensure that the Jewish community in Casper will keep going. As long as I’m in Casper, we’ll have services.”
The congregation meets Friday nights for dinner and prayer services.
“Between 18 to 25 people come,” says Watters, noting proudly that Temple Beth El is the “only Reform congregation in Wyoming with its own building.”
The synagogue in Casper is home to what Wiseman calls “35 member units” — families and individuals.
On High Holidays, 70 to 80 people attend services. Temple Beth El also has a Sunday school and adult-education classes.
On Purim, the synagogue’s 60-year-old sanctuary usually is filled, and the synagogue holds an annual traditional seder on Passover’s first night.
With the crisis at Temple Beth El over, Watters has shifted her focus to municipal concerns.
She was elected to a four-year term on Casper’s City Council in 2000 and is now serving out the final year of her term. Because Casper utilizes the city manager form of government, meaning that a professional manager conducts the city’s business, Watters’ post as mayor is largely ceremonial.
Though voters elect City Council members, the members select mayors and vice mayors from their own ranks.
Wiseman says Watters’ talent and dedication fill him with awe.
“You can’t imagine how nice it is” to have Watters around, he says. “It’s a miracle.”
He says he’s not surprised by her political successes, either.
“To become mayor in a town like Casper, you can’t be a shrinking violet,” he says.