By Deborah Fineblum/JNS.org
A statewide Jewish community of just 400 people is about to receive a leadership boost in a move that will also make history for the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz and his wife Mussie are set to be the new Chabad emissaries in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, helping Chabad reach a special milestone. Of the U.S. 50 states, all but South Dakota have Chabad centers.
But that’s not the only historic aspect of the young couple’s arrival. Mendel Alperowitz will be the South Dakota Jewish community’s first full-time rabbi of any kind in decades.
Following the official announcement of their South Dakota placement Nov. 27 at the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in New York, the Alperowitzes will open a Chabad center—as soon as they find a venue and raise enough money. Like the more than 4,500 other Chabad emissary families worldwide, they will lead Shabbat prayer services, offer classes and workshops for Jews of all ages, and host holiday celebrations.
The Alperowitzes have already gotten a head start with the Sioux Falls Jewish community. 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, Rabbi Alperowitz has been in the city three times to run programs, most recently during the Sukkot holiday in October.
Each time he visits, the rabbi makes new friends.
“He’s made a great impression on us,” says Steve Rosenthal, who runs a local printing business and is the state chair for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “He’s a very warm guy.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I’ve been so impressed with the people there,” says Rabbi Alperowitz, 27, who has two daughters. “But we never thought about actually moving there until last Purim.”
On their plane ride back to New York after celebrating the Purim holiday in Sioux Falls last March, the couple began to seriously discuss what it would be like to open a Chabad center there. The return visit for Sukkot sealed their commitment, Alperowitz says.
“There was a great feeling of welcome,” he tells JNS.org. The rabbi recalls that while he was in the Sioux Falls airport with a traditional lulav and etrog for Sukkot, he was approached by a man who said 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 says.
Based on the people he has met so far, the rabbi believes that the commonly used estimate of South Dakota’s Jewish population—400—may prove too low. “My guess is there are maybe double that [number of Jews],” he says.
“He may be right about the numbers,” says Dr. Richard Klein, a retired urologist who has lived in Sioux Falls for 16 years. “Whether [local Jews will] become more involved now that there will be a full-time Chabad rabbi, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Klein himself is looking forward to taking classes with the rabbi.
“I tend to learn on my own on Shabbat,” he says. “But we’re not a hermit religion. We need someone to learn with. I’m hoping that will happen now.”
‘Self-sufficient group of mostly liberal Jews’
In a town where the only synagogue is a Reform one, the new Chabad center’s Orthodox traditions may take some getting used to, acknowledges Steve Rosenthal, a former president of Sioux Falls’s Reform synagogue. A Reform rabbinical student comes to town only half the time for Shabbat to lead services at that congregation, and kosher meat needs to be brought in from out of state.
“That’s why we have a big freezer,” says Rosenthal.
Klein says that some local Jews “could feel somewhat threatened, somewhat intimidated” by the forthcoming Chabad center.
“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,” he says.
“We’re a very self-sufficient group of mostly liberal Jews,” adds Matilda Oppenheimer, who has lived in Sioux Falls for 27 years.
The most important thing, says Oppenheimer, “is that Mendel is coming.”
“He’s very personable, very warm, a really lovely guy. We’re excited to welcome him and his family to the community,” she says.
Oppenheimer says the challenges of raising a family in a small Jewish community are real, but that they can also forge stronger and more resilient Jewish identities.
“My children learned to stand up as proud Jews,” she says.
Rabbi Alperowitz agrees.
“In Brooklyn there are shuls and restaurants everywhere—it’s so easy to be Jewish,” he says. “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.”
Mussie Alperowitz, 26, is also impressed with the community.
“These are people who’ve really given their all to maintaining communal infrastructure for decades,” says the rabbi’s wife. “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.’”
Two hurdles for the emissaries themselves—food and education—appear surmountable, she adds. Other Sioux Falls Jews bring in kosher food from surrounding states, and there is an online school for the children of Chabad emissaries that is at the couple’s disposal.
“There won’t be family there [for us] like in Brooklyn, but in small towns like this the community becomes your family,” she says. “And in Chabad, being an emissary is a normal and beautiful thing to do, for us to live a meaningful life by bringing meaning into others’ lives.”
The Alperowitzes are a good fit for Sioux Falls, says Rabbi Mendel Feller, a Chabad emissary in the Twin Cities of 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,” says Feller.
Reuven and Avigail Hanna, who are in their 30s, are eagerly awaiting the Alperowitzes’ arrival. The Hannas, who are doctoral students with a 19-month-old child, are among the few current Orthodox Jews in Sioux Falls. Reuven says having a full-time Chabad rabbi in Sioux Falls “can only benefit Jews of every flavor.”
“I’m not saying there won’t be challenges, but they’ve already broken down walls,” says 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.”