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South Dakota’s Dwindling Jewish Population

Less than 400 Jews remain in the Mount Rushmore State

Stephanie Butnick
December 29, 2014

There are less than 400 Jews in South Dakota, the fewest of any state in the country. Jewish families flocked to the region during the Gold Rush, and nearly a century ago almost 2,000 Jews remained. Now South Dakota’s Jewish community, centered around two active congregations in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, is struggling to stay afloat as numbers shrink and rabbinic resources become scarse, the AP reports.

That community has dwindled to an estimated 390 people — less than a tenth of 1 percent of South Dakota’s population. No state has fewer. It’s a small, but tightly knit flock that makes do without a permanent rabbi and worries too few children are coming along to sustain it.

“Nobody wants to be the last one to turn the lights out,” said Steve Benn, a neonatal doctor who serves as lay leader at Synagogue of the Hills in Rapid City. He orchestrates bar mitzvah ceremonies, performs ritual circumcisions and conducts funeral services.

Benn’s services, at least when it comes to leading bar mitzvah services, likely won’t be utilized for much longer: The congregation in Rapid City has just one Jewish child.

Without a rabbi, both congregations work to engage their members—many of whom drive several hours to make it to services—and provide the support and guidance a Jewish community requires. The communities are visited by so-called roving rabbis, young Chabad-trained rabbinical students who make themselves available to local Jews.

But while the communities are creative and resourceful, a thriving future for Jewish life in South Dakota looks unlikely. While there are ways to encourage Jews to move out west, wooing new congregants isn’t always a foolproof solution—a plan to attract Jews to Dothan, Ala. by offering Jewish families $50,000 yielded just 18 new residents in five years.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.