SIOUX FALLS, S. D. – South Dakota’s small, close-knit Jewish community has to do without a rabbi for several years, but the state’s status as the only one with no rabbi will change this winter when a family arrives from New York for the opening of a Jewish community center.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz and his wife, Mussie, it will open up a Chabad House in the coming weeks in Sioux Falls that religious education, worship services and other programs. Alperowitz will also travel across the sparsely populated prairie state to reach as many Jews — observant and nonobservant.
“This is really a great time for us,” said Alperowitz, who earlier traveled to South Dakota, such as a visit to the rabbi. “It will be an open house. … Our primary goal is to help ensure that there is not one Jew in the entire state of South Dakota, who feels lonely and disconnected, and that each individual feels at home and inspired by our traditions.”
The house will host social and cultural activities for children and adults, including events for women only. Alperowitz will lead Hanukkah activities in the state when the holiday is observed the following month.
The first Jews to settle in what is now South Dakota established themselves in Deadwood during the gold rush more than 150 years ago, finding a niche selling hardware, groceries, dry goods and more. In 1920, the state is home to some 1,300 Jews. But that community is estimated to have shrunk to about 400 people — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of South Dakota’s population. Alperowitz, but estimates the number is closer to 1000.
South Dakota is one of the last rabbi, Stephen Forstein, came in the late 1970s, after the rabbi on the Sioux Falls synagogue died. Forstein was a part-time rabbi who also operated a lighting supply business that took him around the state.
“I am to sell a product, such as light bulbs or Judaism, and I make no bones about it — I’m selling Judaism,” he told The Associated Press in November 1980. Forstein moved to Michigan in 1998 , and since then the community has been served by lay leaders and student rabbis who travel to the state on a monthly or bimonthly basis.
In addition, Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students who are part of a global community-outreach training program known as “The Great Rabbis” also come to the state at different times during the year.
Chabad-Lubavitch, which runs from the houses, such as that of the Alperowitzes will lead in Sioux Falls, is a movement within Orthodox Judaism. It also works with schools and other institutions and reaches out to nonobservant Jews to encourage them to embrace their heritage and religious traditions. It is active on college campuses and in cities around the world.
Alperowitz, 27, will come across some Orthodox Jews in South Dakota, as the majority of the Jews in the state are the Reform of the Jews. Theological differences between the two groups, and while he will be located in Sioux Falls, Alperowitz not the rabbi of the congregation in the synagogue of the city.
“I think it’s very positive for him to come to our community; there is no rabbi in the state, and brings out the great resources,” said Stephen Rosenthal, a member of the board of directors of the Sioux Falls synagogue. “But he is an Orthodox rabbi, and the Mountain of Zion here in Sioux Falls is a Reform of the church. … As in Christianity, there is the Catholics and the Protestants and the Evangelicals. Everyone does not agree on exactly the same theology.”
Alperowitz recognized that he is not a traditional pulpit rabbi and expect to spend many hours on the road.
“I will be visiting people in their homes everywhere in the state, where possible,” Alperowitz said. “I’m going there to view that every Jew is really unique and precious for us, just as our own brother and sister really, and we look forward to celebrating our traditions with them.”
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