By Dovi Seldowitz
Chabad takes an important step forward in positioning itself as the guardian of Jewish continuity in the United States.
A few weeks ago, news of Chabad’s first permanent representative to South Dakota made headlines (see here & here). Rabbi Mendel & Mussie Alperowitz, and their two children will be the newly established Chabad of South Dakota. Chabad had previously sent young “Roving Rabbis” to South Dakota for short visits to local Jews.
Reporting on the size of the community is difficult. News outlets report the community size to be around 400. On the optimistic end is Rabbi Alperowitz, who stated there may be close to a thousand Jews in the state. On the conservative end is the National Jewish Data Bank who estimate that the state’s Jewish population is just 345 which is down from 760 from some 35 years ago (Dashefsky & Sheskin, 2013). An even smaller figure of just 250 was listed in the appendix to the 2014 edition of the American Jewish Yearbook, in their breakdown based on city and county (see tables below).
Rabbi Alperowitz certainly has a challenging task ahead. This is a Jewish community so small, it appears to have no Jewish Day school, as the 2015 census of Jewish Day schools show the figures for South Dakota as blank (Shick, 2005). A Jewish Day School is an obvious requirement for an Orthodox family and a key instrument of Jewish communal survival.
These challenges notwithstanding, we can imagine, given Chabad’s success in other areas, it will continue to raise Jewish awareness among South Dakota’s Jews, including those who previously had little to do with the organised American Jewish community. Jewish sociologists and demographers studying contemporary Jewry might have something to learn or discover about remote Jewish communities. And this can come about through engagement with Chabad shluchim in these areas.
For Chabad, the symbolic achievement of a shliach in South Dakota is tremendous, as it is the last of the 50 states to have a permanent Chabad presence. For the general Jewish community, this is a further step in the process of Chabad, a Chasidic group with a particular focus on Jewish mysticism, becoming a central component of Jewish continuity in the United States.
Dashefsky, Arnold, and Ira Sheskin. American Jewish Year Book 2013. The Jewish Demography Project. Springer. (2013).
Schick, Marvin. A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States, 2003-2004. Jerusalem: Avi Chai, 2005.