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Newsroom Notebook: Finding meaning in a rural Jewish cemetery

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About 50 Jewish families settled in northern Burleigh County near what would become the towns of Regan and Wing in the early 20th century. Some of the settlers are buried between the two towns in one of several Jewish cemeteries that can be found in rural North Dakota.

Thirty miles northeast of Bismarck lies a Jewish cemetery, accessible only if you know which gravel roads lead to a prairie trail that runs to its gate.

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Some of the gravestones in the Jewish cemetery include photographs of the people whose names they bear, including this one of Joseph Kremenetsky who died in 1921 at the age of 66.

Inside the fence lie 15 gravestones, many with Hebrew inscriptions and some with photographs of the settlers whose names they bear. Several dozen Jewish families settled in this area during the early 20th century, attending religious services at each others’ homes and eventually at an old schoolhouse they converted into a synagogue.

Their houses were scattered around the prairie, the first of them built right after the turn of the century. The settlers were among the first to this part of the state, predating the founding of the towns of nearby Wing and Regan established when the Northern Pacific Railway built its Wilton-Pingree line.

I visited the cemetery this past Saturday as I do each year at the end of October. I first came here to process something traumatic I covered halfway across the country three years ago.

I was a reporter for the public radio station in Pittsburgh when a gunman walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, and fatally shot 11 people. The next week was a blur for me. I reported from a vigil, a rally and a funeral. For one story, I visited the 911 call center where I spoke to a dispatcher who stayed on the phone with a congregant for 44 minutes while he hid from the gunman in a basement storage room.

It wasn’t until I moved back to North Dakota the next year that the gravity of what I had covered hit me. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the shooting, I felt alone and deeply sad.

During that time, I remembered the Jewish cemetery near Regan. A friend had shown it to me a few years earlier when I lived here before moving to Pennsylvania. I decided to return, as it was the only thing I could think to do to mark the day.

My visit in 2019 was cathartic. Last year, I went at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in North Dakota. I noticed that some of the graves dated to the late 1910s and wondered what the Spanish flu did to the community. This year, I stopped by the State Archives to research the area’s Jewish history before driving to the cemetery.

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Many of the gravestones include Hebrew inscriptions. The writing on the top of this one translates to "The soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life" from 1 Samuel 25:29.

Jews arrived here with the help of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, an organization based in New York that supported Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe as they started farms in the United States. The Jewish settlers in the Regan area primarily came from Russia or neighboring countries.

Their children attended school with other youth whose families moved to northern Burleigh County from Norway and Finland. The students often learned English in class.

Historical accounts indicate that many of the Jewish immigrants struggled to make a living farming and either moved away or turned to other professions. One family opened a butcher shop, another sold shoes and one started an ice cream parlor. Several worked in nearby coal mines. One man played trombone in the Wing Band.

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Fences within the cemetery often enclose family plots.

Most of the families left the prairie by the 1930s, opting to move to bigger cities. The Jewish population has always been small in North Dakota. The largest estimate I could find put it at 1,155 in 1910.

Somewhere between six to 18 Jewish communities formed in North Dakota during the late 19th and early 20th century as immigrants sought to acquire land under the Homestead Act. The first was near Washburn, settled before North Dakota became a state.

Many of the communities had cemeteries, though only several of the sites have been maintained. One at Ashley in McIntosh County was rededicated in 2017 in what former Tribune journalist Caroline Grueskin reported “may have been the largest gathering of Jewish people in the town since the 1920s.” It is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is another near Devils Lake.

The settlers’ stories live on in books they or their descendants have written. The Rev. William Sherman, formerly of North Dakota State University’s sociology department, documented the state’s early Jewish communities in a 1982 paper. Boxes at the State Archives contain a number of details about the Jews buried in the Regan cemetery, courtesy of records maintained by the late Frances Wold. She was a journalist and historian who kept extensive notes on the history of northern Burleigh County.

A lot of the documents in Wold’s collection stem from letters she exchanged with Toba Geller of Fargo in the 1970s. Geller chaired the Jewish Historical Project of North Dakota and planned to write a book. The two women struck up a friendship through their many letters, sharing stories of their religious upbringings and attempts to track down accurate information about early Jewish settlers. They had hoped to meet one day, but Geller died before they had a chance.

Wold made it a point to try to interview the descendants of the people buried at the Jewish cemetery any time she heard of one stopping by from out of town. 

“It is good to know that the people who lie beneath the markers with the Star of David are not forgotten,” she wrote in a 1979 newspaper article. “It is important that their story be recorded along with that of the more numerous representatives of other nationalities and cultures who helped settle this part of North Dakota.”

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A sign welcomes visitors to the cemetery entrance.

After I visited the Jewish cemetery this past weekend, I drove to the main Regan cemetery just outside of town. Wold is buried there, and I wanted to pay my respects. I would have liked to have met her. It’s in large part thanks to her that the history of the Jewish settlers near Regan hasn’t been lost.

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Amy R. Sisk is the Bismarck Tribune energy reporter.

As the anniversary of the shooting approached this year, I thought back to an interview I did at a rally near the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I spoke to a rabbi who, the morning we met, had attended the funeral of a friend the gunman had killed. He told me it’s important to find meaning in pain.

I think that’s why I go to the cemetery. It’s where, a year after the shooting, I felt I could finally grieve the lives lost that day in Pittsburgh.

This year, I went with a new purpose -- to honor the people buried there whose stories I feel I’ve begun to learn. I drove home this weekend feeling a little more at peace.

Newsroom Notebook is a periodic column written by members of the Tribune newsroom that focuses on our community and everyday life.

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