South Dakota's Tiny Hillel Embraces Messianic Jews

9-Member Group Includes Handful of Believers in Jesus

High Plains Hillel: Rachel Hunt and Tim Hanna are leaders of the tiny Jewish community at South Dakota State University.
High Plains Hillel: Rachel Hunt and Tim Hanna are leaders of the tiny Jewish community at South Dakota State University.

By Derek Kwait

Published April 17, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
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South Dakota State University’s Hillel affiliate, B’rith Sholom is more than the only Jewish cultural club in the entire state; its nine members constitute a unique diversity among America’s Jewish organizations, since about half of them identify as Messianic Jews, or those who engage in Jewish practices and accept Jesus as the Messiah.

Messianic Jews have historically been excluded from nearly every Jewish denomination and institution, even the most inclusive. Yet B’rith Sholom insists on its policy that all should be welcome.

The club began when Tim Hanna, a self-described “traditionalist” Jew, came to South Dakota State in 2010 following 11 years of active military service, in pursuit of a master’s degree in communication studies. He was also seeking, he said, “a little space.”

Hanna readily accepted the challenges of living an observant life in Brookings, S.D. But he missed having a Jewish community. And a search for other Jews led him to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. native Rachel Hunt, with whom he formed B’rith Sholom. Hanna assumed the role of president.

For the first few months, South Dakota’s only Jewish campus club consisted of just the two of them. But after the campus newspaper, The Collegian, got out the word of the club’s existence, they were able to fulfill the school’s requirements of seven affiliated members to become an officially registered campus organization. They also affiliated at that point with Hillel International, which added a link to B’rith Sholom on its website.

It was shortly after the formation of B’rith Sholom that Messianic Jews began expressing interest in it. The club’s original rules held that only Jews could hold leadership positions in the group and exercise voting rights, but anyone interested in Jewish culture could join. Hanna didn’t object to including the Messianic Jews in this group. But following negative experiences with proselytizing Messianics in New York City, Hanna insisted on a stipulation that anyone trying to proselytize members would be expelled. ”I hoped that the membership policy would keep the club in Jewish hands while embracing these cross-cultural exchanges,” he said.

The dedication shown by the two Messianics who joined that year earned Hanna’s and Hunt’s trust enough for them to allow them to hold what Hanna called “temporary, minor officer positions.”

One of these Messianic Jews was Brookings native Andy Engelmann, a part-time entrepreneurial studies major set to graduate in 2018. Engelmann’s path to Messianic Jewish belief was a winding one. Shortly after coming to America in the 1930s, his mother’s Jewish family converted to Christianity following his great-uncle’s marriage to a Catholic woman. His family followed this faith strictly until 2001, when a family friend told them about Hebrew Roots, a movement for bringing together Christians to practice their faith in a manner that incorporated recognition and observance of the faith that Jesus Christ himself practiced. While Engelmann’s family remained Christian, this led to it slowly growing in Jewish practice.

Engelmann believes Jews have treated him better than they have many other Messianics, because he himself is ethnically Jewish. But he says his messianism has made him a pariah of two communities.

“We keep Torah, so the Christians call us Jews. We believe the Messiah has come, so the Jews call us Christians. Individually, though, I’ve learned to speak both languages. I discuss the holidays and such around my Jewish friends, and focus more on the Messiah when talking with my Christian friends. I like to say we are the bipolar redheaded stepchild of both of these groups,” he said.


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