By Gabrielle Birkner / Forward
Some 4,200 Chabad rabbis from more than 80 countries are gathering this weekend in New York for the annual conference of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.
In the year since they all last got together to attend workshops, listen to keynote lectures from the likes of former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and pose for their “class picture” — a “Where’s Waldo of rabbis,” according to a Chabad release — the Jewish outreach organization they represent has put down roots in five new countries and one new state, Mississippi. That brings the number of American states with a permanent Chabad presence to 49.
Which had JTA staffers wondering: Which state is the holdout?
West Virginia? Chabad opened in Morgantown back in 2007.
Idaho? They’ve been in Boise for more than a decade.
Montana? Wyoming? Alaska? None of the above.
North Dakota? Well, now you’re getting warmer (or, really, colder).
It’s South Dakota.
So why is the home of Mount Rushmore the sole Chabad-less state in America? Simply put: math. One of the least populous states in the nation — some 844,000 people live there — South Dakota has just 345 Jews, according to the 2013 edition of the American Jewish Yearbook.
Time was, there were more Jews in the state — somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,750 at the turn of the 20th century. Many of them had come to make their fortunes amid the Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870s. And those who stayed on built the kinds of Jewish institutions that made the Great Plains feel like home.
South Dakota, to this day, is home to three historic Jewish congregations.
Synagogue of the Hills in Rapid City, near the “Old West” town of Deadwood, traces its roots back to the gold rush era, though it was established at its current location in 1957. Some 350 miles to the east, in Sioux Falls, is Mount Zion Congregation, founded as a cemetery society in 1903 and as a synagogue 16 years later. Both Synagogue of the Hills and Mount Zion are Reform, with services led by rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.
B’nai Issac in Aberdeen, the state’s sole Conservative synagogue, is closing in on its centennial, said Bea Premack, 81, a longtime congregant. Premack’s husband, Herschel, an 87-year-old South Dakota native, leads Friday night services every week they are in town.
“We rarely have a minyan, but once in while we have a minyan — especially if there are guests in town” said Bea Premack.
B’nai Issac also hosts a weekly Torah study group, which draws several of the congregation’s 12 members as well as some non-Jews in the area. In addition, the Aberdeen Jewish community has also played host in recent years to a group of cyclists who participate in the cross-country bike ride organized by the Jewish environmental group Hazon.
It’s been decades since any of these three South Dakota congregations have been large enough to support a full-time rabbi. Already, by the early 1980s, the state’s lone rabbi made his living selling light bulbs, according to an Associated Press report.
There’s also a tiny Hillel at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., and it draws a mix of Jews and Messianics, as reported earlier this year in New Voices and the Forward. Messianic Jews identify as Jewish and engage in Jewish ritual, but because they accept Jesus as the Messiah, they are not considered Jewish by mainstream denominations.
And just because South Dakota is the only American state without a permanent Chabad emissary doesn’t mean that the Brooklyn-based Hasidic movement doesn’t serve the state. Rabbi Yonah Grossman, Chabad’s Fargo, N.D.- based emissary, visits the state on occasion. So, too, does Chabad’s “Roving Rabbis” corps, which makes periodic trips to South Dakota.
“They give us a call and say, ‘Can we come over?’ and they come to our home and visit with us,” Bea Premack said of the roving rabbis. “They want to know if we need anything — books? a kosher mezuzah?”
Chabad may be well aware of the Jewish presence in the Dakotas. But other Jews the Premacks meet when traveling out of state are often surprised to hear where they are from.
“They usually say things like, ‘South Dakota, are there Jews there?” Bea Premack said. “They think it’s at the end of the world.”