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Passover on the prairie: Grand Forks Jewish community celebrates holiday traditions

Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster was disappointed upon his arrival in Fargo, not long before the Jewish festival of Passover. The year was 1890, and Papermaster had just finished the long journey from New York City to the vast spaces of the Northern Pl...

Rabbi Mendy Karp, left, and Rabbi Shalom Orenstein talk about the preparation that goes into Passover each year. In the background foil is placed over the surfaces as a point to make the kitchen more Kosher as part of the preparation of Passover. Joshua Komer / Forum News Service
Rabbi Mendy Karp, left, and Rabbi Shalom Orenstein talk about the preparation that goes into Passover each year. In the background foil is placed over the surfaces as a point to make the kitchen more Kosher as part of the preparation of Passover. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)

Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster was disappointed upon his arrival in Fargo, not long before the Jewish festival of Passover.

The year was 1890, and Papermaster had just finished the long journey from New York City to the vast spaces of the Northern Plains only to find a Jewish population too small to sustain his religious services. Dejected, he considered returning home to his native land of Lithuania before being prompted to look north to Grand Forks.

He arrived in town less than two weeks before the start of Passover which, in 2017, started Monday. The holiday is one of the most important of the Jewish faith and commemorates the suffering and exodus to freedom of the Hebrews enslaved in ancient Egypt. Given the weight of the holiday and the scarcity of Jewish religious leaders on the frontier, Papermaster soon found his skills to be in high demand.

He would go on from that first holiday to become the first rabbi in North Dakota and would administer to the region’s Jews until his death in 1934. About 127 years later, Papermaster’s great-great-grandson Shalom Ber Orenstein, a young rabbi from Brooklyn, said his ancestor’s first western Passover Seder, a ceremonial meal, was the first thing he officiated in the city.

“That was kind of a trial run; will he stay, will the community like him, will he like the community,” Orenstein said. “It went well and he became the rabbi there for more than 40 years.”

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Long after Papermaster’s death, the city’s modern-day Jewish community continues to celebrate Passover much as it did in his time -- albeit with a few small differences.

“This year we ordered our matzah from Amazon,” said Bert Garwood, acting president of the Grand Forks B’nai Israel Synagogue. Garwood and student Rabbi Zachary Goodman, who has overseen services at the temple for the past year, were in the basement dining hall of B’nai Israel before Monday’s Passover Seder.

Grossman points out the various items on the Seder plate, a platter containing items such as a hard boiled egg, bitter root vegetables and haroset, a kind of sweet fruit and nut mash. Each tells a part of the Jewish story of suffering in Egypt, he said, a retelling contained in the Jewish text called the Haggadah.

Not far from the synagogue, another Seder was shaping up. Following Papermaster’s lead, Orenstein and Rabbi Mendy Karp, a compatriot of Chabad-Lubavitch, a movement of Hasidic, Orthodox Jews, were tending to their own ceremonial dinner in a private home.

The Seder marked the culmination of a statewide circuit the two young religious leaders had run along the Red River Valley and then to Bismarck and Minot, visiting members of the state’s Jewish community. Along the way, they dropped off about 40 pounds of matzah, the unleavened, cracker-like bread of Passover.

The long road is one Papermaster would have been familiar with. Though he had made his home in Grand Forks, he traveled an area as far west as Montana and as far north as Winnipeg, performing religious services for the Jews along the way.

Orenstein said it was an interesting experience to retrace his ancestor’s life and to visit his grave in the Jewish cemetery in Grand Forks. For a holiday about remembrance and reliving an ancestral history, the journey is a fitting parallel.

“It’s nice going through the footsteps of our forefathers -- and I don’t mean Egypt.” Orenstein said.

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Related Topics: GFH INSTAGRAMNORTH DAKOTA
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