South Dakota has the smallest Jewish population in the country. But the community has temporarily grown as eight rabbinical students tour western South Dakota.
The group met with local Jews at a Rapid City coffee shop, ran into Jewish tourists at Mount Rushmore and is having one-on-one meetings with Jews who live in more rural areas.
Back in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, rabbinical student Levi Feldman can take a quick walk to the synagogue or Kosher store. There are no such stores in South Dakota, where Jews might have to drive hours to the nearest temple.
“In Crown Heights, I would say that (Judaism) sort of comes to you as your environment, it’s sort of there. In South Dakota, you’re a self-made Jew and your Judaism is your own experience,” Feldman said.
Like other Orthodox, Hasidic Jews, Feldman has a beard, dons a kippah and wears tzitzit – or the fringes from a prayer shawl – around his waist.
Feldman is part of the Chabad movement, which is known for reaching out to Jews, no matter how observant they are. The 24-year-old and his classmates were invited to South Dakota by Mendel Alperowitz, who became South Dakota’s only full-time rabbi in 2016.
Alperowitz said the tour allows isolated Jews to connect with other Jewish people. And it’s helpful for the students since some have never spent time in small Jewish communities.
“It’s very important for their training and hopefully it allows them to experience other parts of America and see different cultures around the country and be able to connect and learn more,” Alperowitz said.
The group is spending more than a week in South Dakota before heading back to Brooklyn.