A new rabbi in South Dakota — where there are fewer Jews than in South Korea

This week, on the “(Is It) Good for the Jews?” podcast …

Larry Rosen: (after discussion about Jews competing in the Winter Olympics) Did you know there are 1,000 Jews living in South Korea?

Eric Goldbrener: Are they all American servicemen?

LR: Contractors, diplomats, stuff like that. You know where there are even fewer Jews than in South Korea?

EG: Saudi Arabia!

LR: South Dakota.

EG: How many people live in South Dakota, 5,000?

LR: No, 777,000 live there. And of that 777,000, somewhere between 250 and 400 are Jews. Which makes the arrival of Chabad Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz even stranger than it might otherwise be. He’s living in Brooklyn… Crown Heights… and he moves.

EG: So the epicenter of Jewry.

LR: He’s got the beard, the hat, the black coat, and he decides, “You know, we need more room. For the kids. They need a yard. I think we’re going to move to South Dakota.” Maybe a missionary zeal type of deal?

EG: You think? Go minister to the South Dakotan Jews.

LR: All 250 of them. Is there a history of that sort of thing?

EG: Sure. Chabad, I wouldn’t call it missionary, but Chabad sends rabbis and their wives all over the globe to tend to the needs of Jewish communities and Jewish travelers.

LR: That’s nice. So anyway, 250 Jews. Rabbi Mendel shows up and I don’t think it’s going so well, maybe not for reasons that you would think. For the one thing, he sticks out like a sore thumb. This guy is out of central casting. He’s got a big red beard.

EG: Dude, take off the black hat, put on a cowboy hat. Take off the black jacket, put on some Wrangler jeans, get some cowboy boots…

LR: You can even keep the beard!

EG: Keep the whole thing, but dress like the locals.

LR: They’ll leave you alone. Not only that, I think the issue is — what are these South Dakotan Jews going to do with him? Two temples, maybe some informal Jewish organizations, 250 Jews, I’m pretty sure none of them are ultra-Orthodox. Because unless you’re Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz, you’re not going to go live 3,000 miles from the nearest Orthodox shul.

EG: This is all very true, but if you have a Jewish community and are going through the Jewish lifecycle events, regardless of how religious you are, eventually Jewish services are going to be needed. Who’s going to do bar mitzvahs and weddings? You need someone who’s committed.

LR: My point being — what’s going to come out of his mouth during a service? Are those South Dakota Jews going to go, “I’m on board with this,” or are they going to think, “This in no way resembles what I imagine when I think of a service?”

EG: I think they’d be more on board than we would be.

LR: How so?

EG: If he gets out there in South Dakota and starts talking about traditional Jewish rituals and values, that might fly better in South Dakota than in, say, San Francisco.

LR: That’s a decent point. They might look past the hat, the coat and the beard and think, “I like what this guy is saying!”

EG: Maybe.

LR: The article I read said that maybe he would encourage more Jews to move to South Dakota, but I’m not so sure. You remember that town in Alabama that paid Jews $50,000 to move there?

EG: Yeah?

LR: Only 18 took them up on the offer.

EG: I’m thinking if you live in Crown Heights, you have umpteen kids, you study all day, you’ll think these small towns are wonderful. If you can move out there, live on a huge plot of land, you pull the trigger.

LR: But maybe you buy a cowboy hat once you get there.

Eric Goldbrener
Eric Goldbrener

Eric Goldbrener is a Libertarian, Zionist, atheist and autodidact technologist. He co-hosts the podcast “(Is It) Good for the Jews?”

Larry Rosen
Larry Rosen

Larry Rosen is a writer, husband, father and author of “The Rabbi Has Left the Building,” a memoir about his son’s bar mitzvah. He co-hosts the podcast “(Is It) Good for the Jews?”