Chabad Emissaries Coming to Small Jewish Community of South Dakota
JNS.org — A state boasting just 400 Jews is about to receive its first full-time Jewish leadership, in an historic move for the community and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
South Dakota will soon be home to Rabbi Mendel and Mussie Alperowitz, who will set up a Chabad center in the last state still without emissaries.
The official announcement was made last month at the annual international conference of the movement’s emissaries in New York. As soon as enough money can be raised and a venue obtained, the Alperowitzes will make the move to Sioux Falls, where — like the more than 4,500 other Chabad emissary families worldwide — they will lead Shabbat prayer services, host holiday celebrations and offer classes and workshops for Jews of all ages.
The Alperowitzes have a head start with the South Dakota Jewish community, as they have visited the state three times as part of Chabad’s “Roving Rabbi” program, which dispatches rabbinical students and young rabbis to teach and lead services in communities without a Chabad center. On the plane ride back to New York after celebrating the Purim holiday in Sioux Falls last March, the couple began to seriously discuss the possibility of opening a Chabad House in the city. A visit in October for Sukkot sealed their commitment, Alperowitz said.
“I’ve been so impressed with the people there,” Rabbi Alperowitz, 27, told JNS.org. “There was a great feeling of welcome.”
The rabbi recalled when a man approached him in the the Sioux Falls airport and told Alperowitz — who was carrying a traditional lulav and etrog for Sukkot — that he was Jewish but had never held the four species before.
“When I saw this man feeling so good about being a Jew, and excited about doing this mitzvah, we both got pretty emotional,” Alperowitz said.
The rabbi added that he believes that the commonly used estimate of South Dakota’s Jewish population — 400 individuals — may prove to be low, and guessed that the community may be “double that size.”
Dr. Richard Klein, a retired urologist who has lived in Sioux Falls for 16 years, agreed that the number may be wrong. “Whether [local Jews will] become more involved now that there will be a full-time Chabad rabbi, we’ll have to wait and see,” he said.
The Aleprowitz couple — who have two young daughters — say that each time they visited, they have made new friends and connections, and community members report that the feeling is mutual.
“He’s made a great impression on us,” said Steve Rosenthal, who runs a local printing business, serves as state chair for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was formerly the president of the local Mt. Zion Reform Congregation. “He’s a very warm guy.”
Klein said he is looking forward to taking classes with the rabbi.
“I tend to learn on my own on Shabbat,” he said. “But we’re not a hermit religion. We need someone to learn with. I’m hoping that will happen now.”
Yet, in a town where the only current synagogue is Reform, and Shabbat services are led about half the year by a visiting Reform rabbinical student, the Orthodox traditions of Chabad may take some getting used to, acknowledged Rosenthal.
Klein said that some local Jews “could feel somewhat threatened, somewhat intimidated” by the forthcoming center, but “we discussed that possibility honestly with the rabbi, and he said he’s coming here to bring the community together, not tear it apart.”
“I think having [the Alperowitzes] here will make us a stronger Jewish community,” Klein added.
“I’m not saying there won’t be challenges, but they’ve already broken down walls,” said Rosenthal. “I agree with the rabbi that we’re here to learn from each other, and building the community is my dream. Maybe this is a first step — after all, four new Jews is already a 3-percent increase in the city’s Jewish population.”
Reuven and Avigail Hanna, both in their 30s, are eagerly awaiting the Alperowitzes’ arrival. Doctoral students with a 19-month-old child, the Hannas are among the few current Orthodox Jews in Sioux Falls, and Reuven said having a full-time Chabad rabbi in the city “can only benefit Jews of every flavor.”
Matilda Oppenheimer, who has lived in Sioux Falls for 27 years, added that the challenges of raising a family in a small Jewish community are real, but that the difficulties can encourage people to forge stronger and more resilient Jewish identities.
“My children learned to stand up as proud Jews,” she said.
Rabbi Alperowitz agreed.
“In Brooklyn there are shuls and restaurants everywhere — it’s so easy to be Jewish,” he said. “In South Dakota they have to come together to create Jewish community, to celebrate Shabbat. It’s really an inspiration. We’re looking forward to raising our daughters as proud Jewish South Dakotans.”
“These are people who’ve really given their all to maintaining communal infrastructure for decades,” Mussie Alperowitz, 26, said. “We felt an instant connection with them and we said to each other, ‘Wow, these people are wonderful. We should really consider moving out there.’”
The two most obvious hurdles for the Chabad family — food and education — are surmountable, Mussie said. The Sioux Falls Jews already have a system in place for bringing in kosher food from outside the state — “We have a big freezer,” laughed Rosenthal — and there is an online school available for the children of Chabad emissaries located in remote areas.
“There won’t be family there like in Brooklyn, but in small towns like this the community becomes your family,” Mussie added.
The Alperowitzes are a good fit for Sioux Falls, said Rabbi Mendel Feller, a Chabad emissary in Twin Cities, Minnesota.
“I knew [Rabbi Alperowitz] as a personable, approachable guy, so I suggested he try it out. The community has been very supportive, and we’re a few hours away [from Sioux Falls] and ready to help in any way we can,” Feller said.
“In Chabad, being an emissary is a normal and beautiful thing to do. For us to live a meaningful life, we want to bring meaning into others’ lives,” Mussie said.