Rachel Hunt, 23, hadn’t talked to too many rabbis in South Dakota before she met Yosef Sharfstein, 24, and Shmuel Lefkowitz, 24.
A Minneapolis native, Hunt is a student in her last year at South Dakota State University in Brookings, in the northeastern part of the state, less than four hours from Minneapolis, Minn., due east and Omaha, Neb., due south. With the estimated number of Jews in South Dakota hovering below 400—spread throughout a state that measures more than 77,000 square miles, the 16th largest in the nation—she says conversations about Jewish tradition can be few and far between.
The Jewish individuals and families who do live there are centered in and around Sioux Falls and Rapid City, with handfuls in Brookings, the state capital of Pierre and a few other smaller cities.
So when the these two young rabbis—part of a cadre of “Roving Rabbis” who spend their summers and study breaks connecting with communities near and far, practically everywhere on the globe—reached out to her this summer, she was glad to set up a time to talk with them.
“They’re making people feel like they’re not the only Jews out here,” she says. “Roving Rabbis”—Sharfstein and Lefkowitz included—organize programs around Jewish holidays, teach Torah study, and as a central part of their travels, stop by people’s homes to discuss Judaism, observance and everyday topics as they relate to Torah and heritage, including family concerns.
“I think they’re making an impact,” says Hunt.
Rabbi Yonah Grossman, of Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota in Fargo, N.D., drove to his neighboring state over Sukkot.
She, for one, was glad for the chance to connect with the two rabbis over coffee. Coming from Minneapolis, she says she’s used to more of a “Jewish scene,” so talking with them “kind of felt like being at home.”
In December, she worked with Sharfstein to help coordinate multiple menorah-lightings. “They literally brought Chanukah to Brookings,” she says, recalling the holiday staples they shared—latkes, dreidels and chocolate coins. “If you had told me when I had come here five years ago, I would have never imagined seeing the lighting of a seven-foot menorah in Brookings.”
‘Essential Part of the Jewish Nation’
Interestingly enough, there were more Jews a hundred years ago in South Dakota than there are today.
In 1899, some 1,750 Jewish people called the area home. European Jews, especially, made their way out West, social agrarians lured by the U.S. Homestead Act, where land grants were doled out by the federal government to settle in country’s grasslands.
Some of those folks stayed, some moved on nearby states or to larger cities in the region, and others left for good.
Sharfstein, second from left, and Druk, to his right, also held a menorah-lighting in the Sioux Falls Empire Mall, attended by this group of young men.
For more than 20 years now, Chabad rabbis have been sent to South Dakota under the auspices of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. “Multiple times a year, young rabbis visit the state to provide Jewish residents with their various needs during holidays and year-round,” he says. “On each visit, the ‘Roving Rabbis’ drive hundreds of miles in an effort to reach every single Jew, no matter how remote they may be.”
Sharfstein started visiting a few years ago, and has since developed personal relationships with people all over South Dakota, which is currently the only state in America with no permanent Chabad presence.
“We are committed to continuing to address the needs of Jewish residents there,” says Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos Suite 302. “Chabad’s dedicated involvement with the Jews of South Dakota highlights the core philosophy of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—that no matter where a Jew is, both on the map and in life itself, he or she is an essential and irreplaceable part of the Jewish nation, worthy of our care, warmth and love.”
Kotlarsky also notes an active “Roving Rabbis South Dakota” social-media page, used to remain in touch with South Dakotan Jews when visiting rabbis are back in New York.
A Chanukah celebration in Brookings, in the northeastern part of the state and home of South Dakota State University. Sharfstein and Druk are standing at the far right. Student Rachel Hunt, who met with the two rabbis in December, is at the far left.
‘Waiting for Judaism’
For Lefkowitz, who lives in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where daily life is steeped in everything Jewish, meeting people in small communities is a great experience: “People are excited; they’re just waiting for Judaism.”
A favorite story comes to mind. During one stay in South Dakota, someone mentioned visiting a friend with Jewish lineage; he and Sharfstein actually discovered that she was Jewish. The woman then told them she had a grandson living in town who had just turned 13.
So what did they do?
“We arranged a bar mitzvah right away,” relates Lefkowitz. “The next afternoon, we met the grandmother, her daughter and her daughter’s family; we put together some cakes; and we held a bar mitzvah. The boy put on tefillin, and we celebrated. The kid had never even heard of a bar mitzvah a few years ago, and all of a sudden, he’s having a bar mitzvah party in his house.”
Outside Pierre's Capitol building during Chanukah 2013. Sharfstein is joined by Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, right. The two “Roving Rabbis” have traveled much of the state together visiting Jewish homes.
That’s the kind of energy they’re sparking, and people have been responding. They especially come out to celebrate holidays, according to the rabbis. During Chanukah 2013, they drew a significant crowd for one of their outdoor menorah-lightings, despite the temperature dropping to minus 10 degrees.
“It was amazing,” recalls Lefkowitz. “It was freezing cold, and people were coming out to show their support and do the mitzvah.”
Sharfstein has been to South Dakota four times now—the past two summers and twice for Chanukah. In that time, he has coordinated menorah-lighting events in Pierre, Sioux Falls and Brookings. He and Lefkowitz have also visited people’s homes as part of a broader Chabad “Roving Rabbi” program that dispatches rabbinical students for a month in the summer; they return for holidays and are available throughout the year to help with questions about Jewish practice, belief and resources.
In South Dakota, they also connect people with Chabad in North Dakota, and can arrange for quarterly shipments of kosher meat to interested individuals.
Inside the Capitol that same year, Sharfstein and Lefkowitz light the menorah with South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, left, and State Sen. Dan Lederman. (Photo: Joel Ebert-Capital Journal)
Not only that, this year they started something new, having Rabbi Yonah Grossman—co-director with his wife, Esti, of Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota in Fargo—visit during Sukkot with a mobile sukkah. He mainly spent time near Deadwood and in Rapid City, the closest city to Mount Rushmore—sometimes with just miles of corn and soy fields, or badlands and mountains as the view—offering Jewish men and women the opportunity to shake the lulav and etrog, and eat a bite of food in the sukkah, which are traditions (mitzvahs, actually) associated with the eight-day holiday.
The impact was visible on the faces of those he met, many of whom hadn’t had the opportunity to celebrate in ages, and certainly for some, ever before in their lives. “One man in Rapid City told me that he fundamentally disagrees with public displays of religion, but since he was so thrilled that we drove more than 400 miles to visit, he would shake the lulav in the sukkah-mobile anyway,” recounts Grossman.
Lefkowitz puts tefillin on Steve Rosenthal of Sioux Falls.
An added bonus from the trip, he says, is the fact that a number of people he met in South Dakota have become regulars of a weekly online Torah class.
Grossman, like the “Roving Rabbis,” would answer any queries or help in ways he could. Sharfstein notes that “some people want to know about the holidays and praying, and some have questions on Jewish philosophy and practice … it’s a little bit of everything.”
Very often, wearing their traditional clothing—black hat, long black coat, not the everyday resident garb—the rabbis get stopped on the street. “People are always coming over and asking: ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Is there a big Jewish community here?’ ” he relates. “But people are very nice, and they like what we’re doing, so it’s encouraging.”
Robert Mandel of Rapid City met Sharfstein and Lefkowitz on one of their first trips.
The two young men now make it a point to come by the 63-year-old’s home when they’re in the area to spend a few hours, chatting and wrapping tefillin with him, which he considers an important addition to the Jewish content in his life.
“I enjoy it,” he says. “Judaism is such a rarity in South Dakota; it’s nice to have anything that makes you feel connected.”
The two rabbis have made man connections during their time in South Dakota. Here, they pose with Herschel Preamak in the city of Aberdeen.
Sharfstein, left, and Lefkowitz wrap tefillin with Mark Margolis in Aberdeen.
The sukkah in the back of Grossman's truck came in handy in Rapid City, the closest city to Mount Rushmore and home to a handful of Jews.
Offering a man a bite to eat in the sukkah; the rabbi also brought with him a lulav and etrog to shake, all of which are traditions associated with the eight-day holiday
Grossman drives near Deadwood, a popular “Wild West” tourist resort that, incidentally, the rabbi says is linked to some significant Jewish history.
Filling up at the general store.