Greta Van Campen, South Dakota, Bad Lands, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Hespe Gallery, San Francisco. Via Artsy.

In the Wilderness

A young girl in South Dakota—the last school-age child remaining in her community—epitomizes the challenges of rural American Judaism.

If you weren’t looking for Synagogue of the Hills, you probably wouldn’t know it was there. Even if you were, you still might miss it. Tucked away down a driveway at the end of a dead-end residential street on the west side of Rapid City, S.D., it’s hardly distinguishable from the modest, single-story homes that are its neighbors. The sole architectural feature that indicates it is a house of worship is the wooden sign out front, which bears, in vaguely Semitic font, its name.

Most days, the building lies dormant, and activity in the area is concentrated in the synagogue’s backyard, where South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks operates a popular outdoor campus. I meet a man and his wife walking their dog there, and when I tell them I’m in town visiting the synagogue behind me, the man says, “Oh, is that what that is?” 

But one or two evenings a month, the lights of the house flicker on and a few cars roll up the gravel driveway. Today is one of those days. It’s a warm Friday in March, and about two dozen people are gathered in the sanctuary for Shabbat services. Over the course of the night, I meet some of the attendees, among them a woman in the process of converting, a non-Jew who serves as the synagogue’s administrator, and a practicing Catholic. One regular attendee, I am told, is a former nun.

Sitting in the back of the sanctuary, I see, for the most part, a sea of gray hair. About two feet below the heads of most of the congregants, brown-haired Zaidee stands with her mother, Rebecca Kline. At nine years old, Zaidee is the only child in the room, and the last school-age child remaining in the community.

The 40 or so congregants at the Synagogue of the Hills are model 21st-century Jews: Simply by attending a synagogue, they outperform the majority of their brethren across the country.

If there is a more fitting portrait of non-Orthodox American Judaism today, I haven’t seen it. Looking around the room at this small, largely middle-aged congregation and its only young member, I see a microcosm of the faith’s greatest concerns and greatest hopes.

The Pew Research Center’s 2013 study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans“ reports major changes in the beliefs, observances, and identities of American Jews: As the New York Times points out, two-thirds of respondents do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God, and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year. Three-quarters of non-Orthodox Jews have married outside the faith, up from less than a quarter before 1970. About a third of Jewish millennials say they have no religion.

In many ways, the 40 or so congregants at the Synagogue of the Hills are model 21st-century Jews: Simply by attending a synagogue, they outperform the majority of their brethren across the country, and while they count only one millennial among them, she at least identifies as Jewish. But their intermarriage rate is high and their birth rate, clearly, is low. Their fate, like that of non-Orthodox Jews across the country, hangs in the balance.


The first Jews to arrive in the Upper Midwest came from German-speaking parts of Western Europe beginning in the 1850s, according to research by historian Linda Mack Schloff. Eastern European Jews, fleeing persecution in Russia and Romania, arrived in the 1880s. But unlike on the East Coast, where Jews mostly settled in large urban areas, in the Midwest many Jews also settled in small towns like Sioux Falls and Aberdeen (where there are still synagogues today, though the one in Aberdeen is largely defunct). In the mid-1870s, Jews were among the many people drawn by rumors of gold in the Black Hills; in Deadwood, according to local historian Ann Haber Stanton, there were eventually enough Jews to spur the local Jewish cemetery association, in 1896, to purchase cemetery land on the town’s Mt. Moriah.

Other Jews were lured to South Dakota by the promise of landownership through the Homestead Act. According to Schloff, about 1,000 Jews filed homestead claims in the Dakotas between 1882 and 1910, though most quickly abandoned farming, discouraged by scant crop yields on the arid plains. The Jewish population in the Upper Midwest peaked in the 1920s, and started to decline during the Depression, as farmers and merchants went broke.

The Jewish population of South Dakota in 1971, according to the American Jewish Year Book, was 760. By 2013, it had dropped to 345, amounting to 0.0% of the state’s overall population of 833,354. Even Wyoming, the state with the smallest overall population in the country, 576,412, had three times the Jewish population of South Dakota.

For evidence of where the Mount Rushmore State stands in the wider Jewish diaspora, consider this: The Chabad-Lubavitch, a Chasidic movement dedicated to helping Jews observe the faith, has permanent centers, or “Chabad Houses,” all around the world, from New Zealand to Nigeria to Nepal. And they have at least one in all but one of the 50 U.S. states. Which state is the exception? You guessed it.

Certainly, it wasn’t easy to be a Jew in South Dakota back when that meant toiling over crops that wouldn’t grow and creating a sense of religious community where there was none before. But today, the challenges are still formidable: Jewish employees have to take personal days off from work on religious holidays, families hoping to keep kosher have to order meat online from places like New York or Denver, and, in Rapid City, they have only about a dozen opportunities a year to connect with fellow Jews in a formal capacity. For the community’s sole Jewish child, maintaining a sense of identity and community is a unique challenge.


For Jewish children in the Dakotas, isolation has been the norm for more than a hundred years. Watching Zaidee in synagogue, I’m reminded of one of her historical counterparts, Sophie Turnoy Trupin, who grew up in Wilton, N.D., in the early 20th century.

In her memoir, Dakota Diaspora, Trupin describes her family as outsiders “on the fringe of the community” in Wilton, a point made most clear during the Christmas season, when her classmates sang songs like “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“My sister and I sat silent,” Trupin writes. “It was as though we had removed ourselves completely, and only our physical forms devoid of all seeing, hearing, or feeling, occupied our desks. We must have been in the third grade, and at an age when children are very sensitive and want so much to be part of a peer group. No one, neither our parents nor our rabbi, had told us not to sing those carols, but we felt instinctively that this was not for us. The teacher said nothing; she understood.”

The Jewish population in the Upper Midwest peaked in the 1920s, and started to decline during the Depression, as farmers and merchants went broke.

Before she had kids, Zaidee’s mother, Rebecca, always imagined she’d one day send them to Jewish day school, that they’d have Jewish friends and hang out at a Jewish youth center. But by the time Zaidee started going to religious school at Synagogue of the Hills, there were just a handful of other students enrolled, and they didn’t attend regularly. Since then, two of them moved away, and two stopped coming. Now, Zaidee is the only child at services and the only student who has studied with the synagogue’s student rabbi in the last year. Year after year, she is the only Jewish child in her class at school.

But in a sign of how some things, at least, have changed in the last hundred years, none of that seems to bother Zaidee. Her friends, she says, think her religion is “pretty cool.” She loves the Jewish holidays, especially Hanukkah. Having other kids in classes at the synagogue was “pretty fun,” she says, but it’s even better now that it’s just her—she’d rather not have to contend with the “talking and playing around” of other students.

As the winter holidays approach, Zaidee usually spends more time talking excitedly with her friends in school about gifts on their wish lists than worrying about their religious differences. But when those differences do emerge, she takes them in stride. Two years ago, her teacher sent home an image of Christmas trees for students to color and decorate. Rebecca asked if Zaidee could bring in a drawing of a menorah instead. The teacher agreed and Zaidee bedecked the rendering with tin foil, beads and real candles. The sole menorah was displayed with the rest of the artworks in the hallway outside her classroom.

“I think a lot of kids might have admired it,” Zaidee says.

“It’s beautiful,” her father, Gregg, says. “We still have it. It’s hanging on a bulletin board in our kitchen.”


When Synagogue of the Hills’ president Steve Benn moved to Rapid City from Nashville for a job at Black Hills Pediatrics and Neonatology with his wife and two children 20 years ago, the synagogue wasn’t yet a place, but it was a community. About once a month, Jews in the state’s second-largest city gathered sporadically for services in the chapel at Ellsworth Air Force Base in nearby Piedmont, and occasionally in a conference room at the office of a company run by Stan Adelstein, who at the time was the congregation’s lay leader and who later became a state senator. A part-time rabbi from about five hours away in Sioux Falls would visit occasionally to conduct services, but most times they were on their own. Steve’s wife, Jo, says at the time the synagogue’s newsletter had a distribution of more than 100.

In their first few years, Steve and Jo started trying as best they could to replicate the kind of Jewish experience they’d known at their conservative synagogue in Nashville. With the help of some online research and the guidance of visiting student rabbis from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Steve began leading services once a week. Their first two children celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs, and the Benns had two more children, a boy and a girl. In 1996, Stan donated a home he owned for the synagogue’s use, which was soon retrofitted to accommodate a sanctuary, a library, and classrooms. Jo began teaching at the religious school, which, a few years later, reached a peak enrollment of 23 students.

“After the service, people came up to me one at a time and they were like, ‘Are you really Jewish? Are you really here?”

Zaidee’s mother, Rebecca, had been used to living in small, remote Jewish communities before she arrived in South Dakota. She grew up in upstate New York attending the Lake Placid Synagogue, which in 1980 had a membership of just 10 families. In 1992, when Yom Kippur rolled around just a few months after she moved to South Dakota—her first husband was stationed here—he was called away for training and she found herself looking for company. She found Synagogue of the Hills in the phone book, and attended the service that night at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

“I went out to the base and sat in the back just to kind of check everything out,” she tells me. “After the service, people came up to me one at a time and they were like, ‘Are you really Jewish? Are you really here? You’re young and you’re Jewish and you’re here? What’s going on?’”

Though she never considered herself especially religious, she figured she could attend services every once in a while, which she did, all the way up to 2002 when she spotted a strange new congregant named Gregg who was sporting a handlebar mustache, a biker vest and dark boots.

As a boy, Gregg attended a conservative synagogue in New Jersey and enrolled in religious school up until his bar mitzvah. After that, Gregg’s father told him, it was up to him what he wanted to do with his Jewish education. Accordingly, Gregg didn’t go to a synagogue until after the turn of the new millennium—long after, like many Jewish South Dakotans, he moved to the state for a job—when he was dragged “kicking and screaming” by a neighbor to a Yom Kippur service. He noticed Rebecca right away; she didn’t notice him until a few Fridays later. “She thought I was a creep,” Gregg says.

A few years after that, they were married.


Every year, Synagogue of the Hills gets a new student rabbi from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. The latest is Sara Eiser, who like many of the congregants at Synagogue of the Hills, arrived at Judaism in an unconventional way: Growing up the token “Shabbos goy” amongst a group of Jewish high school friends, she converted after college, then served as a cantorial soloist at a synagogue in Pennsylvania before deciding to become a rabbi. As part of her rabbinical training, she’s flown from school in Cincinnati to Rapid City eight times a year—that is, once a month, with a break during the summer—since 2013.

“The first people who walked into the synagogue were four Mormon kids,” she says of her first visit to the shul. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh God, is this how it’s going to be? How am I going to run a service?’”

That hesitancy didn’t last long: Synagogue of the Hills, with its small congregation and isolation from large Jewish metropolitan areas, was always the sort of community where Sara wanted to work: “That’s where I feel the communities really happen. The people out here are Jewish because they choose to be, not because it’s easy.” She’s just announced that she’ll be staying with Synagogue of the Hills for another year.

On Saturday afternoon, after a torah study group and an adult education class, Sara meets with Zaidee in the synagogue’s library. Passover is approaching, and in preparation, they read a picture book describing the story of the holiday and practice reciting the “Four Questions”—the last of which, a real tongue twister, causes Zaidee to erupt in a fit of giggles. They also practice writing in Hebrew, and sing “Kadesh Urchatz,” which lists the steps of the Passover seder.

“In the seder, you get to the part where it says, ‘Each of us has to approach the seder as if we were personally freed from Egypt.’ That’s what I want for Zaidee,” Sara tells me. “When she looks at Jewish stories, when she looks at Jewish texts, when she approaches Jewish prayer, when she ends up at college and sees a sign that says Hillel, I want her to think, ‘Those people are like me. That’s where I belong.’”

Zaidee’s parents want her to have a bat mitzvah. They want to take her to see Israel one day. But more importantly, they want her, in some way, to feel Jewish.

“I feel much better that she is getting—however small, however infrequent—a Jewish education,” Zaidee’s father, Gregg, says. “She’s going to have a Jewish identity, and she can do with it whatever she wants. I think that’s even what my dad’s philosophy ultimately was. I’m a bad Jew—I eat bacon, I curse, I have tattoos. But I think if I didn’t insist that she do this, I’d be disappointed.”

Zaidee’s parents want her to have a bat mitzvah. They want to take her to see Israel one day. They want her, in some way, to feel Jewish.

Listening to Gregg, I start to wonder: What is a bad Jew, anyway? And what, for that matter, is a good Jew? What kind of Jew should one raise one’s child to be?

Those questions have been, perhaps, the driving inquiry of Jewish thought for the past 3,000 or so years. And, arguably, in 2015, the answers have never seemed more elusive. Does a good Jew observe the Sabbath? Does she keep kosher? Does she support Israel? Does she live in Israel? Does she go to temple once a week, once a month, once a year? Does she speak Hebrew? Does she believe in God?

I have no idea. And I think most Jews don’t know either, or at least can’t agree. But I will say this: At the Friday night potluck, I met Curtis Leonard, a man of Muskogee Cherokee ancestry, who was there with his wife, Ruth Thomas, a Jew from New York. Curtis isn’t Jewish, but he comes to synagogue every month—more frequently than I, a Jew by birth— dons a yarmulke, and eats and attends services along with everyone else.

According to the Pew study, that puts him ahead of the 21% of Jews who report having hardly any or no Jewish friends, and the 69% that aren’t members of a synagogue. He also fulfills at least three of the qualities Jews identify as essential to being Jewish: eating traditional Jewish foods, being a part of a Jewish community, and having a good sense of humor.

All things considered, I’d say he’s probably a better Jew than most. So if Curtis, and others like him at Synagogue of the Hills, is Zaidee’s model for good Judaism, then I think she will turn out just fine.


Zaidee may in all likelihood grow up to be a proud, Jewish-identifying woman living in Rapid City. But if new congregants don’t arrive, the existence of Synagogue of the Hills will be in jeopardy.

You wouldn’t know it if you went to some of the mega-synagogues on the coasts, but across the county in small cities and rural areas, small Jewish congregations like Synagogue of the Hills are in decline. The Jewish Community Legacy Project, an organization administered by the Union for Reform Judaism, works with those congregations of 40 members or less, which are largely in the Midwest, and predominantly conservative, reform, or unaffiliated. Some are looking for help to revive their dwindling memberships; many more are looking to close their doors and want help preserving their historical archives, or donating their resources or ritual objects to good causes.

“There’s probably about 140 congregations around the country that within the next five to 20 years will likely close because of a common set of characteristics,” says Noah Levine, the JCLP’s senior vice president. “Nobody’s moving into the town. People have moved out, and certainly the children have moved out. There’s an aging population, and the leadership is dwindling. In a number of instances the president of the synagogue is the only one who’s holding things together, maybe with one or two others. If the president passes away or moves away no one will take over. In most cases, it’s not lack of money, it’s lack of people.”

Levine says the congregations he works with, much like Synagogue of the Hills, are perhaps more passionate and tight-knit than those in more populous areas, but attracting membership simply boils down to economics.

“You have communities that may have had 30,000 living there and now have 15,000. Those communities that are going to have a new medical institute or a new factory or maybe the headquarters of international corporations, maybe there’s an opportunity there,” he says. “But the communities we work with don’t have that kind of promise for the next 20 years or so.”

If America is, as Kaplan suggests, the modern equivalent of Babylon for Jews, then I think the Jews of Rapid City are more like Ezekiel than his wayward brethren.

Like Synagogue of the Hills, the state of South Dakota has struggled with recruitment. With its low tax burdens, utility rates, and commercial rent costs the state may seem like a good place to do business, but weekly wages are low—$232 less than the national average in 2013—there is little access to venture capital funding and research dollars, and many jobs are left unfilled. (Two years ago, Gov. Dennis Daugaard stood at a kiosk in between a Hot Topic and a stationery store in Minnesota’s Mall of America to try to convince shoppers to fill them.) According to a South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation report released in August, the work force in South Dakota is expected to add just 33,265 people between 2012 and 2022, with registered nurses, child-care workers, and customer-service representatives most in demand. Not exactly a gold rush.

Some communities nationwide, lacking naturally occurring economic draws for Jews, have gotten creative in their attempts to revitalize. In 2008, Dothan, Ala., businessman Larry Blumberg launched a $1 million plan to attract other Jews to move to his city by offering financial assistance—up to $50,000 per family—to help with moving costs. Robert J. Goldsmith, executive director of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan, says the congregation had more than 100 families in the 1970s, but had shrunk to less than 40 by the time he moved there in 2007 with his wife, who became the congregation’s rabbi. Since the initiative began, 10 families have moved there from nine states. There are now 70 families in the community and 27 kids in the religious school.

But the question in Rapid City is the same as in Dothan: Will they stay in the community as adults?

“That will become a factor as time marches on,” Goldsmith says. “We hope at that point we’ll have the infrastructure that will keep the kids. But you don’t know. You hope. You work hard at it, but who knows?”


In his book, The Future of the American Jew, the rabbi and essayist Mordecai Kaplan writes that American Jews are living in an “apocalyptic age” in which Jewish life is “either smothered by the deadweight of smug complacency or paralyzed by fright and despair.” He wrote this, mind you, in 1948; Jewish life, arguably, has only become more apocalyptic, by his standards, since then.

“If we Jews had patron saints, the priest-prophet Ezekiel would be the patron saint of those of us who are vitally concerned in the outcome of the present crisis in Jewish life,” Kaplan writes. Ezekiel lived in the “spiritual wasteland” that was the Jewish colony in Babylon, formed by captives taken from Israel in the sixth century B.C.E.: “Some of the Jews were so cowed and overawed by the might of their conquerors and the prestige of their conqueror’s religion that they renounced their own God; they gave as an excuse the utter hopelessness of their people.” Ezekiel, Kaplan writes, tried to change their outlook.

If America is, as Kaplan suggests, the modern equivalent of Babylon for Jews, then I think the Jews of Rapid City are more like Ezekiel than his wayward brethren. Indeed, they have caught “something of the spirit with which Ezekiel sought to imbue the Jews of his generation: courage in the face of disheartening apathy and spiritual decline, faith in the recuperation and regenerative power of our people, and wisdom and patience in planning and building for the future.”

The strength of Rapid City’s Jews lies precisely in the particular hardships they face, the closeness of their surroundings, metaphorically, to Babylon. As Jews in strange territory, they can only do so much to observe their faith—but they do it. The small Jewish population there, I believe, fulfills Kaplan’s hope for American Jews: That they are neither deluded about the serious nature of their situation nor “resigned to the inevitability of a tragic outcome.”

Steve Benn, for one, is hopeful that somehow a new generation will carry the congregation forward.

“I think what we probably need is some sort of germinative layer, some sort of strata of young fertile people who call this their home who are productive and reproductive and are happy be here,” he says. “The children are really the lifeblood. People like me, I’m going to get older and it won’t matter anymore. But the question is: Who do you pass the baton to? It’s very important that we have the Zaidees of the world who say, ‘You know something? I remember what it was like there and I liked it.’”

There are a few glimmers of hope: The congregation is currently working with a graduate student at a nearby university to develop strategies to help grow, and maybe ultimately save, the community. And perhaps the most hopeful sign of all came this September with the birth of Steve’s grandson, Draven—who, at less than a year old, is now the youngest Jew in Rapid City. When Draven cries in synagogue during services, Steve doesn’t find it irritating.

“That’s a wonderful noise,” he says. “Because it’s a clarion statement of a future.”