SIOUX FALLS | In the living room of a sprawling house on the edge of Sioux Falls, Mendel Alperowitz is winding a leather strap around the arm and fingers of Stuart Jacobs.
A box attached to the strap rests in Jacobs’ elbow; inside is a scroll inscribed with seminal Jewish prayers that proclaim one God and profess man’s duty to love that God. Another box rests on his forehead. They are performing the Jewish ritual of tefillin at Jacobs’ home.
Alperowitz leads Jacobs in a prayer he once had memorized.
“V’ahavata. Et. Adonai. Elohecha. B’chol. L’vavcha,” Alperowitz says and Jacobs repeats. “You shall love your God with all your heart.”
When the prayer is over, Alperowitz takes out a ram’s horn, a shofar, through which he blows a series of long and short blasts.
Jacobs, 55, takes it in with a wide grin.
“It always makes me feel better to do tefillin,” Jacobs said, “because it takes me back to where I belong.”
Jacobs, who was born and raised in the Bronx, is part of a tiny community of Sioux Falls Jews that has long gathered to pray and commune without a permanent rabbi. The last full-time spiritual leader of Mount Zion — the only synagogue in South Dakota east of the Black Hills — retired in 1978.
Lay leaders have picked up the slack, along with rabbinical students who fly in every other week from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. But some of the more observant felt something was lacking.
Enter Mendel Alperowitz.
A clergyman without a congregation, Alperowitz moved to this city on the prairie to serve as a kind of Pied Piper for the Jews who don’t have a spiritual home.
“My goal is that there should not be a single Jew in the state of South Dakota who feels that they don’t have a way to express their Judaism,” he said.
Although there are two synagogues and long established Jewish communities in South Dakota, Alperowitz has come for the isolated and the unaffiliated, whether they are devout or haven’t prayed since childhood.
“No matter how far away they live from the Jewish community, however far across the state, we’ll be there, we’ll be visiting with them, in touch with them, doing Jewish things together,” he said.
The 27-year-old has no intention of interfering with the state’s synagogues, Mount Zion in Sioux Falls and Synagogue of the Hills in Rapid City. (While welcoming Alperowitz and his family, leaders from both synagogues say they’ve been self-sufficient long enough without a rabbi.)
But with most of South Dakota’s Jews practicing a far more liberal strain of Judaism, or none at all, some of the state’s Jews are asking whether Alperowitz is the rabbi South Dakota needs.
Alperowitz made a splash last fall when he announced his relocation to South Dakota from an insular and ultrareligious Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights, in Brooklyn.
The story spread, in part because of its novelty: a deeply religious man with a frizzy red beard, who dresses in the black suit and fedora of the old world, moving to the prairie?
Alperowitz is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Jews, who believe that every ritual performed by a Jew brings the Messiah a step closer. Like Mormons, Chabad rabbis take up posts around the world, establishing or enriching Jewish presence in far-flung places, from Nigeria to Nepal. By setting up houses for worship and gathering, Chabad managed to place at least one Jewish spiritual leader in every U.S. state — except one, South Dakota.
Alperowitz first visited Sioux Falls in 2016 to lead a celebration for the holiday of Purim. When he returned to New York, he and his wife, Mussie, talked about what it would mean to move to a place with few amenities for people who follow strict Jewish dietary laws and pray three times daily; a place with new Jewish school for their children. They came anyway.
Not everyone is thrilled to see Alperowitz’s black fedora silhouetted against South Dakota’s vast plains.
“Some people would say, ‘He’s not my rabbi, he doesn’t represent me,’” because of the rigid way Alperowitz interprets Jewish law, said Steven Benn, president and lay religious leader of Synagogue of the Hills.
South Dakota’s Jewish community dates back to the 1800s, when a wave of Eastern European immigrants escaping violence settled in the United States, filling East Coast cities. The Homestead Act of 1862 that gave people the chance to own a tract of land was the impetus for some Jews — who had not been allowed to own land in their home countries — to relocate into the interior of the country.
Largely outnumbered by Gentiles, many Jewish settlers were isolated, and some faced discrimination. When the first generation of Jews born in the Dakotas grew up, their parents urged them to get their education in areas with larger Jewish communities, usually on the coasts. By the 1950s, Jewish populations in cities such as Fargo, Sioux Falls and Rapid City were dwindling.
Only two synagogues remained, both of which practice the individualistic Reform strain of Judaism.
“We are not a large enough community to have several congregations,” said Stephen Rosenthal, a member of the board of Mount Zion, as well as the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council: Minnesota and the Dakotas. “In this community, we are all Jews.”
Although exact numbers are not known, it’s estimated that there are fewer than 400 Jews living in South Dakota, a state of 865,000.
For a community that has survived for a generation without a full-time rabbi, some wonder whether one is necessary at all.
“He brings an additional perspective, but he’s not really filling any kind of a void,” said Matilda Oppenheimer, a longtime Mount Zion member. “He’s just supplementing what we have, and we appreciate that.”