In a vast banquet hall at the Brooklyn Marine Terminal Pier 8 in New York, more than 5,000 Chabad Lubavitch emissaries, lay leaders and supporters gathered on Nov. 27 for the culminating event of the five-day International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries.
The conference came as the Chabad community marks 75 years since the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, arrived in the U.S. with his wife in 1941, beginning a journey of transformation for the American Jewish community.
The keynote speaker at the gala banquet was Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who spoke with emotion of his years-long connection to Chabad and the important role played by shluchim across the world.
Hoenlein reminded the audience that the Rebbe believed that “what we have in common is much greater than our differences” and that “he had a sense of responsibility to every Jew, including those who seemed most remote from him.”
From Hoenlein’s perch in Manhattan, South Dakota is as remote as it gets, but that is, in fact, the latest permanent outpost for Chabad Lubavitch, which will soon open a Chabad center there, in Sioux Falls.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters, will be the permanent rabbi there, which he announced from the podium at the banquet.
Alperowitz has visited South Dakota three times, and the state has had a Chabad presence for more than 50 years through its Roving Rabbis program. But when Alperowitz and his family move to Sioux Falls, they will make South Dakota the 50th state to have a permanent Chabad residence (there are also permanent residences in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).
“I visited [South Dakota] for the first time last year for Purim and did an event for 45 people,” he said. The reception he got was extremely positive. “People were almost begging us to consider moving to South Dakota.”
Because South Dakota’s small Jewish community is rather spread out, said Alperowitz, “I will not be a typical pulpit rabbi.”
Instead, in addition to his duties in Sioux Falls, he’ll travel across the state and meet Jewish people in their homes or wherever is necessary.
“We’ll have Jewish education programs for adults and children, festival activities, women’s programs.”
Alperowitz said the official estimate for Jewish people in South Dakota is 400, but “from visiting with people, we believe there’s close to 1,000.”
Matilda Oppenheimer, a member of Mt. Zion Congregation in Sioux Falls, isn’t sure of the exact number either.
“Mt. Zion has about 100 people spread across about 40 to 45 member households,” said Oppenheimer, who wears a number of hats for the congregation, including temple treasurer and treasurer of the sisterhood. “Not every Jew in Sioux Falls is affiliated with Mt. Zion,” she added, noting that her synagogue is affiliated Reform, and there is a small contingent of Orthodox Jews who are also in the area.
Oppenheimer doesn’t think Alperowitz’s move will make a huge difference in the life of her congregation, given its Reform orientation, but she’s excited to welcome the rabbi to the larger community.
“For years now there have been Chabad rabbis who come through and visit and sometimes they celebrate holidays, like do a menorah lighting at Chanukah,” Oppenheimer said. “Mendel has been the exception in that he has come here several times. Mendel is a darling, wonderful person. He’s just warm and enthusiastic and kind, and we’re thrilled that Mendel is coming.”
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Oppenheimer has lived in South Dakota for close to 30 years, and she and her husband raised two children there, both of whom have strong Jewish identities.
Alperowitz’s daughters are just 18 months and 2 months old. They’ll grow up, he said, as true South Dakotans. The two biggest logistical challenges will be the availability of kosher food and Jewish education for his children, but Alperowitz points out that many Chabad shluchim face similar issues and just get creative with freezers and send their children to Chabad’s Jewish online school.
Oppenheimer has felt keeping kosher was the biggest challenge on her end; she said it’s why she became a vegetarian. At the same time, she said South Dakota isn’t quite as remote as people seem to think.
“We’re not isolated. We’re not without rabbinic contact,” she said, noting that rabbinic students from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion come to work at South Dakota congregations each year, and many people have rabbis in their extended family who come to visit. “We have the same access to the internet as everyone else. We’re not living out on the prairie.”
Oppenheimer cited Jewish congregations in Rapid City and Aberdeen but did concede “there’s not a depth of support here, Jewishly speaking.” For that reason, she wonders how long the Alperowitzes will be able to tough it out.
“It’ll be interesting to see if they’ll be here for one year, two years — there won’t be a lot of peers for their children,” she said. “I wish them well. It’s great that they’re going to give it a shot.”
“The Rebbe taught us to view a challenge as an opportunity,” Alperowitz said. “South Dakota is a really a beautiful place. The people are warm and welcoming. It’s a great place to raise a family.”
Liz Spikol is a reporter at the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times.