Nov 21, 2012
Being a Shliach in North Dakota
The new Shliach in North Dakota Rabbi Yonah Grossman states: "If they don't think I'm Amish, they know we're Jewish."
By Mordechai Lightstone, Lubavitch.com
It’s been a while since North Dakota has had a Chasidic rabbi.
Back in 1891, Benjamin Papermaster arrived in Fargo where he found a small group of Jewish settlers tenaciously trying to settle the windswept prairie lands.
Today, there are less than 500 Jews in the state. But that gives Rabbi Yonah and Esti Grossman, who have recently moved to Fargo, nearly 500 reasons for being there.
Announced at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries earlier this month, the Grossmans' outpost is challenging by any account.
Since peaking in the first half of the previous century, North Dakota's paltry Jewish population—now the lowest in the country after neighboring South Dakota—is dispersed mostly between the population centers of Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck, and has had no real Jewish infrastructure in decades.
In the past, local Jewish organizations have relied mainly on itinerant leaders and rabbinical students for any formal Jewish education.
But the state's scattered Jewish communities have begun to rally behind the Grossmans since they've come. A series of Purim parties attracted some 40 people, and a bi-monthly "Jewish School" in Grand Forks draws some 14 children. Weekly Shabbat meals offer Jews living here the opportunity to meet and get to know one another.
"There is a sense of community," said Grossman, perhaps surprisingly. "When people heard that we’re here for them, that we've joined their community, they've been very welcoming."
Harry Leichter of Grand Forks is one such member of the community. When he moved with his wife Ruth from Fairfax, Virginia, to be closer to their children and grandchildren, they were hoping to recreate a little of the community environment they left behind.
But in a state where "75 miles between two cities is an incredibly short distance," Leichter admits that it's "difficult to get people together."
"Here in North Dakota, we have to huddle together despite being so spread out... and the Grossmans are the ones who travel to distances to find Jews interested in Judaism.”"
Since meeting the Grossmans, Leichter has worked with them to bring kosher poultry from a wholesaler in Minneapolis, North Dakota's nearest Jewish community located some 234 miles south, a three and a half drive on I-94. Winnipeg's Jewish community, 300 miles to the north in Canada is the second closest community.
"At this point we consider ourselves extended members of the Jewish communities in the Twin Cities and Winnepeg," Grossman says when asked about their isolation.
The Grossmans, like many other Chabad emissaries off the beaten track, use Skype to stay in touch with Yonah's family in Chicago and Esty's family in Amsterdam.
As to the future growth of North Dakota's Jewish community, Grossman says that most people here have scant memories of what once was, "but the spark of interest is still there."
People have approached him in grocery stores and on the street. "If they don't think I'm Amish, they know we're Jewish." The Grossmans are building on that enthusiasm, doing what they can to enhance the experience of Jews in the Great Plains.