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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – South Dakota's small, tight-knit Jewish community has made 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 to open a Jewish community center.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz and his wife, Mussie, will open a Chabad House in the coming weeks in Sioux Falls that will offer 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 — as possible.
"This is really a great time for us," said Alperowitz, who previously traveled to South Dakota as a visiting rabbi. "It will be an open home. ... Our primary goal is to help ensure that there isn't one Jew in the entire state of South Dakota that feels lonely and disconnected and that every 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 next 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. By 1920, the state was home to some 1,300 Jews. But that community is estimated to have shrunk to about 400 people — less than a tenth of 1 percent of South Dakota's population. Alperowitz, however, estimates the number is closer to 1,000.
South Dakota's last rabbi, Stephen Forstein, arrived in the late 1970s after the rabbi at 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'm out to sell a product, be it like 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 Roving Rabbis" also come to the state at different times during the year.
Chabad-Lubavitch, which runs the houses like the one that the Alperowitzes will lead in Sioux Falls, is a movement within Orthodox Judaism. It also operates 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 globe.
Alperowitz, 27, will encounter few Orthodox Jews in South Dakota, as the majority of the Jews in the state are Reform Jews. Theological differences exist between the two groups, and while he will be based in Sioux Falls, Alperowitz will not be the rabbi of the congregation at the city's synagogue.
"I think it's really positive for him to come to our community; there's no rabbi in the state and he brings great resources," said Stephen Rosenthal, a member of the board of the Sioux Falls synagogue. "However, he is an Orthodox rabbi, and Mount Zion here in Sioux Falls is a Reform congregation. ... Like in Christianity, there's the Catholics and the Protestants and the Evangelicals. Everybody doesn't agree on exactly the same theology."
Alperowitz acknowledged that he won't be a traditional pulpit rabbi and expects to spend lots of hours on the road.
"I'll be visiting people at their homes really all across the state whenever possible," Alperowitz said. "I'm going there viewing that each Jew is really unique and precious to us, just like our own brother and sister really, and we look forward to celebrating our traditions with them."
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