WEST FARGO -- As the rest of the country is grappling with how to understand racial divides after violence erupted at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. Aug. 12, Bonanzaville unveiled a new exhibit that celebrates the contributions and culture of Jewish families that helped shape North Dakota.

The yearlong exhibit, titled “The North Dakota Jewish Experience: Shvitzing It Out on the Prairie,” explores the history and lives of Jewish homesteaders.

The idea for the showcase was sparked after a May 21 rededication of the Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery in Ashley, which contains the graves of about 28 pioneer Jewish farmers. The rededication was followed by the July 4 placement of a plaque honoring Jewish settlers in the Dakota Territory next to South Pleasant Church at Bonanzaville.

“Those events really sparked a lot of interest throughout the community,” said Bonanzaville Executive Director Brenda Warren. “We decided to educate our community and our visitors on what great contributions the Jewish immigrants made to North Dakota and our country.”

Bonanzaville’s exhibit, which includes a timeline of Jewish and artifacts of Jewish culture donated by area families, opened to a reception attended by nearly 100 people on Tuesday. 

“The story of North Dakota is a proud saga of hard work and dedication to the community,” said Rabbi Yonah Grossman, who founded the Chabad Jewish Center in Fargo.

Jewish settlers
made their mark

After the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, flocks of immigrants made their way west and into the Dakota Territory, and thousands of Jewish settlers made their home in the upper Great Plains.

At one time, North Dakota had the fourth largest number of homesteaders working plats of land, said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

At least 800 Jewish individuals filed for land between 1880 and 1916, usually settling in clusters around the state. The first Jewish settlement in North Dakota was in 1882 when about 11 families settled near Devil’s Lake, according to the Bonanzaville exhibit.

Millions of Jewish families were fleeing the Russian empire’s persecution during that time, including Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster, who arrived in Fargo in 1891 from Kovno, Lithuania.

Papermaster settled in Grand Forks and organized a collection of Russian and German Jewish families into a congregation, serving as the rabbi of the Grand Forks Jewish community until 1934. As a circuit rabbi, he traveled across the area to circumcise babies, and officiate weddings, funerals and other events.

In 1896, the Temple Beth El synagogue was chartered in Fargo. It remains one of only two active synagogues left in North Dakota, along with B'nai Israel Congregation in Grand Forks.

Many settlers farmed or landed in towns created around the railroad lines and operated general stores.

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Over the years, many Jewish individuals made great impacts on Fargo and its economy. Myron Bright was a judge on the 8th District Circuit Court of Appeals from 1968 until his death in 2016. The longest-serving Fargo mayor was Herschel Lashkowitz, who stood at the city’s helm from 1954 to 1974. In 1968, Harold Doroshow and his wife opened North Dakota’s first McDonald’s in Fargo.

Many Jewish families left the area after staying the necessary five years to acquire a full land title under the Homestead Act. North Dakota’s Jewish population is now about 400, which is fewer than any other state except South Dakota, according to Robin Doroshow, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest.

Exhibit spotlights diversity 

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said the exhibit will help bring an understanding of different cultures to this area at a time when it is most needed.

“We have to kill the hate,” Mahoney said. “ We all have to love one another, we have to love all of the cultures and the more we show these things about them, the more we can understand.”

The exhibit will remain open until August 2018 and could become a permanent display, Warren said.

Bonanzaville is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday through Aug. 31.

The exhibit was created at the Bonanzaville pavilion with the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, the Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. It was designed by Curator Typhanie Schaffer and North Dakota State University professor Angela Smith.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530