Wednesday, November 2, 2016

From Deadwood to Rapid City

Images of the Wild West are filled with swinging saloon doors, dusty main streets, and small, fenced-in cemeteries. One would not then expect to find a place called Hebrew Hill in Deadwood South Dakota. However, in 1876, when people flocked to the Black Hills of the Dakotas hoping to find gold, Jewish entrepreneurs played a critical role in setting up Deadwood’s mercantile infrastructure.

Deadwood’s main strip started off as a row of sturdy tents, including Jacob Goldberg’s Big Horn Grocery (which became Goldberg’s Casino in the 1980s). Harris Franklin (originally Finkelstein) became a powerful business man whose mark on the town remains notable at the Historic Franklin Hotel. In the heyday of Deadwood, Jews like Solomon “Sol” Star also made a definitive impact on the town. Star was the postmaster, served twice as the town’s mayor (1884-1893, 1896-1899), and joined the legislative branch both before and after statehood (November 2, 1889).

While a formal congregation was never established in Deadwood, the local Jewish residents did acquire a Torah in 1886. Transported from Koenigsburg, Germany, by a young bride coming to wed a Deadwood resident, the scroll came to be known as the Deadwood Torah. They also created a Hebrew cemetery association in 1896 and purchased what is now the Hebrew Hill section of Deadwood’s Mount Moriah.

By the mid-twentieth century, the Jewish population of Deadwood had decreased significantly. In Rapid City, South Dakota, however, a Jewish community was growing. By the mid 1950s, the Synagogue of the Hills congregation was established, although they did not have a proper synagogue building for many decades. Services were held at a chapel at the nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base until 1995, when the Synagogue of the Hills congregation purchased a location in Rapid City proper.

Although the Jewish population of South Dakota is incredibly small (less than 500), there is no question regarding the impact Jews have made and will continue to make on the state.

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