Monday, November 2, 2015

The Jews of North Dakota

On November 2, 1889, North Dakota was admitted to the United States as the 39th state (and South Dakota as the 40th). In honor of that landmark, Jewish Treats presents a brief review of the early history of North Dakota’s Jews.

As with many of the states of the Great Plains, North Dakota’s first Jewish community was established in the late 19th century and consisted of immigrant Jews, many of whom tried to eke out a living as farmers. The lure of farming was two-fold: 1) For those coming from the Russian Pale of Settlement, land ownership had been prohibited, but the Homestead Acts allowed everyone a chance to own land, and 2) the Jewish communities on the east coast encouraged new immigrants to go west as the cities were already overcrowded and jobs were difficult to find.

There were at least six Jewish agricultural settlements in North Dakota. One was named Jerusalem as a reflection of the Jewish hope of building a home free of oppression. Alas, the combination of their lack of farming experience and the harsh conditions (drought, grasshopper swarms, prairie fires, etc) led to the failure of the communities. The settlers drifted apart, with some leaving the region and others opting to open businesses in the towns.

While congregations formed briefly in the towns of Wing and Ashley (where a synagogue was built in 1917), more established communities developed in cities. Shortly after the arrival of Kovno born Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster in 1892, the Bnai Israel Synagogue was established in Grand Forks. The Fargo Hebrew Congregation was chartered in 1896. Today it is estimated that 400 Jews live in North Dakota, down from 1750 in 1899. Of all the states, only South Dakota has a smaller Jewish population (estimated at 250 Jews).

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