South Dakota synagogue celebrates 100 years
By KELDA J.L. PHARRIS
Oct. 16, 2017
ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — Like many settlers of the Northern Plains, Jewish immigrants moved west from East Coast landings with sights set on prosperity offered by the Homestead Act of 1862.
"The earliest people from the 1800s were here because of the pogroms in eastern European countries. It was affectively ... ethnic cleansing is the modern term." Jerry Taylor told the Aberdeen American News
Pogroms are riots with the intent of persecuting ethnic groups.
"They put pressure on the Jews to leave," he said. "At the time, the United States was trying to fill this vast emptiness of the middle of the country. Here it was, free land. And in the Jewish countries Jews couldn't own land."
Taylor is a member of Aberdeen's Congregation B'nai Isaac. The synagogue is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
The first rabbi to serve Aberdeen and surrounding area was Julius Hess. He arrived in 1914 and was integral to getting a permanent temple for the young Jewish community.
One of the first services for Hanukkah, in December 1916, also celebrated the preliminary plans to build a temple. At the time, the synagogue had 33 charter members with more than 60 people attending the festival of lights.
Ultimately, the temple was not built, but instead purchased from the First Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1917.
Congregation B'nai Isaac was incorporated May 5, 1917, by founders Ben Brussel, Isadore Predemstky, Samuel Calmenson, William Ribnick, Isadore Kraywetz, Maz Anton and Harry Abramsdn, according to American News archives.
Hess gave the dedication in both English and Yiddish. The service also included the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner," according to newspaper accounts.
A number of rabbis served B'nai Isaac into the early 1970s. Lay clergy have conducted ceremonies, holiday gatherings and regular services since, with the occasional visiting rabbi stopping by. For the past several years, the lay clergy duties have been fulfilled by Herschel Premack of Aberdeen. His father came to the area in 1916 at the age of 18.
The wealth of families who were members through the congregation's 100-plus years have left their stamp on the region.
The first efforts to work the prairie didn't come easy to Jewish settlers.
"A lot of the Jews were not farmers and moved on to other occupations," Taylor said.
Premack gave the example of one family running an Army surplus store and eventually growing it into a clothing store. Others ran delis and markets.
"Those were the years where every other block had a grocery store," Premack said. "A lot of them would wind up settling someplace and have a store. Then their kids would spread to other towns and open stores."
A history of those first families has been recorded. Matt Remmich was tasked with the job. He's a graduate student at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. He previously attended a Bible group in the basement of the synagogue while an undergrad student Northern State University. Later he worked with the South Dakota State Historical Society, so the congregation thought he'd be perfectly suited for the task.
Names of now-closed Aberdeen businesses like Feinstein's and Pred's were started by some of the first Jewish families to move to town.
"It's really interesting that a lot of the people in the region will always remember those two iconic stores," Remmich sai. He said several people have told him they had a coat or a family hand-me-down from one of the shops.
The local Jewish community ebbed and flowed through the years. In the 1930s Dust Bowl era, many decided to head farther west to California, Arizona and Nevada.
Then, in 1950, the synagogue building was lifted to have a basement put in. A sign of facility improvement meant stabilization for the previously waning Jewish community.
A number of rabbis had columns or moments of reflection in Aberdeen newspapers. In one, Rabbi Benjamin Mazor warned against the trappings of credit card debt. The rabbis also had posts and leadership roles with various community clubs.
The congregation's religious services evolved with its changing numbers, including going without a full-time rabbi. But the congregation as a whole has always been an active outreach to the community, an advocate for new residents and an educational tool to help people better understand Judaism.
"We've always worked with the diversity committees. When they started several years ago, we were part of that. We've always been available when new people come to town, sometimes even when people are job-searching and want to know if there's a Jewish community here," Bea Premack said. "St. Mary's (Catholic Church, just to the east of the synagogue) invited us to do a Passover Seder a couple years ago."
A Seder is a ritual and ceremonious dinners served during the Passover holiday.
Members of the congregation offer services to Jewish people who find themselves in the hospital. The temple has good relationships with Northern State University and Presentation College, Premack said. Sometimes classes pass through for tours or the congregants will set up informational booths at events.
The now-synagogue is one of the 10 oldest buildings in Aberdeen according to American News archives. It was built in 1886 for the Wesleyan Methodist Church. It's also touted as the oldest synagogue in continuous use in South Dakota, according to a pamphlet printed for the open house.
There are two other synagogues in South Dakota — Synagogue of the Hills in Rapid City and Mount Zion Temple in Sioux Falls.
Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com