Frontier Jews find more ‘Green Acres’ than Goldene Medina in rural Dakota
Like fellow Americans moving West, the first Jews who settled in the Dakota Territory were attracted by the Homestead Act of 1862
After Kristallnacht and the Anschluss, Felix and Margarethe Steiner fled their native Vienna for the warm embrace of a decidedly chillier destination: Fargo, North Dakota.
The Jewish couple crossed the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent because of Herman Stern, a Fargo businessman and civic leader who rescued between 100 and 125 of his German and Austrian coreligionists from 1933 to 1941.
A German immigrant himself, Stern worked in an improbable partnership with North Dakota Sen. Gerald Nye, who was a member of the America First Committee.
“It’s a great American Jewish story,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
That story is part of a new exhibit, “The North Dakota Jewish Experience – Shvitzing It Out On The Prairie,” that debuted at the Bonanzaville – Cass County Historical Society in West Fargo on August 15, aided by the JCRC of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, and the Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota.
Hunegs said the exhibit will remain at Bonanzaville for a year — and possibly permanently.
Hunegs calls the North Dakota Jewish community “relatively small,” but adds that it “has often played an oversize role.”
Its members also include Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster, a Lithuanian immigrant who served for over four decades as chief rabbi in Grand Forks; Herschel Lashkowitz, the longest-tenured mayor of Fargo, from 1954 to 1974; and Judge Myron Bright, who served on the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for almost a half-century before his death last year.
Like fellow Americans moving West, the first Jews who settled in the Dakota Territory were attracted by the Homestead Act of 1862. Robin Doroshow, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, described the act as free land for people not previously allowed to own land.
However, the Dakotas were already inhabited by Native American tribes who fought several battles with the US government. The US ultimately resettled many tribes on reservations. One Native American legacy is the name “Dakota,” which means “allied” or “friendly” in the language of a tribe called the Dakota, Lakota or Sioux.
Hunegs was unaware of any interactions between Jews and Native Americans in North Dakota, but said he did not know much about the topic.
The one-stop-shop rabbi
Many North Dakota Jewish homesteaders were sponsored by coreligionists in larger cities, according to Doroshow. Rabbi Judah Wechsler of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota sought to resettle hundreds of Russian Jewish immigrants in a colony south of Bismarck.
However, according to the Mount Zion Temple website, the Russian-Jewish settlers were unprepared for multiple crises — “crop failure, bad weather, and prairie fire” — that wrecked the colony and caused Rabbi Wechsler’s resignation.
Others stayed, and by the first quarter of the 20th century, there were Jewish populations in multiple cities and towns: Williston, Ashley, Bismarck, Wishek, Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Fargo.
In Grand Forks, Papermaster became chief rabbi during his 45-year career in North Dakota.
Born in 1860 in the Orthodox stronghold of Kovno, Lithuania, Papermaster traveled 7,000 miles after the Jewish community of Fargo asked the chief rabbi of Kovno, Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, to send them a spiritual leader. Spektor sent Papermaster, who, in addition to being a rabbi, was a trained mohel and ritual slaughterer.
Noting these qualifications, Mordechai Lightstone wrote in a 2015 article in Chabad.org that “the recently married Papermaster was ideally suited for the position far from the Jewish establishment.”
But Fargo’s 15 Jewish settlers and their families were uninterested in their new rabbi. As for the rabbi, after his arrival, he subsequently learned that his wife Ethel had died and that family members wanted him to come to New York. Instead, he went to Grand Forks, where he remarried to Anna (Chaya) Leviton. Papermaster would go on to have a total of 13 children, and served his congregants until his death in 1934.
“Papermaster was a great prototype of American Jewish leadership,” Hunegs said. “He represented the needs of the American Jewish community, but he also gravitated towards the greater [American] community.”
The rabbi understood that “the Jewish community needed to contribute to the greater community,” Hunegs said. “It needed to be seen as an asset.”
The macher needs a mentsch
Another leader who realized this interdependence was Stern, whose ties with the greater American community proved invaluable during World War II.
Stern immigrated to the US as a teenager. He acquired a stake in the Straus men’s clothing store, developed North Dakota’s Chamber of Commerce and was active in the Boy Scouts.
“Everybody in North Dakota knew him,” Hunegs said. This included isolationist Sen. Nye, who “was probably not philo-Semitic, to say the least.”
However, Hunegs noted, the senator also recognized Stern’s popularity and the political interest in working with him on a humanitarian mission that needed support.
“The State Department did all it could to raise obstacles,” Hunegs said, noting that it was a “time of quotas.”
“Stern would write, typing forms … in order to gain admission,” Hunegs said. “On top of that, he would need Sen. Nye to apply pressure and persuasion on the consul already in Germany, so the work of Stern would be fulfilled.”
Stern also “assumed financial responsibility” for the refugees, Hunegs said. “He was trying to run his own family, his own business, and save all these desperate people.”
They included Margarethe and Felix Steiner, who worked for the Straus men’s clothing store as a seamstress and tailor, respectively.
The Steiners “worked hard their entire lives,” Hunegs wrote. “Margarethe and Felix fulfilled the promise made by Herman Stern — in all of its bureaucratic complexity — that the German and Austrian Jews he saved from Hitler would not become ‘public charges.’”
North Dakota Jews would also help fight Hitler. The exhibit contains a Roll of Honor from the B’nai B’rith in Minot, North Dakota showing the names of 42 Jewish WWII veterans from the cities of Minot, Devils Lake and Williston — including two Silver Star and Purple Heart winners who were wounded in action: Sidney Adelman of Devils Lake and Norman Diamond of Minot.
Jewish leadership in times of change
Postwar North Dakotans elected — and reelected — Lashkowitz to a record-setting 20-year tenure as mayor of Fargo.
Lashkowitz’ father, Ukrainian immigrant Harry Lashkowitz, helped nominate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. The younger Lashkowitz presided over Fargo during a time of “great change,” Hunegs said, with “urban renewal and many other very significant projects.”
In 1968, Myron “Mike” Bright was appointed as a federal judge to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals by president Lyndon B. Johnson.
“His long and distinguished career included seminal opinions in cases involving conscientious objector status, the burden of proof in civil rights cases, and federal sentencing guidelines,” Rabbi Yonah Grossman, director of the Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota, wrote in an email.
The judge “was always proud of his Jewish heritage,” Grossman noted. “Indeed, in the background of the cover of his autobiography is the admonition from Deuteronomy: ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue.’”
Bright served until his death in 2016. He was the last surviving member of the federal judiciary appointed by Johnson.
This year has witnessed a revival of interest in North Dakota’s Jewish heritage. On May 21, Gov. Doug Burgum declared Jewish Homesteaders Day in North Dakota, and that same day, the historic Jewish cemetery in Ashley, North Dakota — which contains gravestones of Russian-Jewish homesteaders — was rededicated.
Papermaster’s great-grandson, Rabbi Shalom Orenstein, helped conduct research for the Jewish North Dakota exhibit. At the exhibit opening, one attendee had a deep personal connection — Amy Long, an aide to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Long is Judge Bright’s granddaughter.
The standing-room only crowd of about 150 also included Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney; aides of both Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer; and Concordia College President William J. Craft.
“It was an honor to be there, not only representing Senator Heitkamp but also with the personal ties I have to my grandfather,” Long wrote in an email, noting that she could only speak in a personal capacity, not on Heitkamp’s behalf.
“I know that in some way, he had touched every person in the room that evening. He was contagious that way,” said Long.
Long brought her 12-year-old son to the exhibit’s opening. “I felt it was important for him to understand the history of the Jewish people in North Dakota — and that it used to be a fairly vibrant community.”
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