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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

The other Messianic was Rose Steinmeyer, a sophomore majoring in hospitality and hotel management and German. She grew up in a Messianic Jewish family in Hebron, Neb. Her experiences at SDSU provided her first taste of organized Jewish life.

“I know my friends find me a contradiction, being both a Jew and a Christian,” she said in an email to the Forward. “Many people here at SD State are just surprised to discover that there are Jews in South Dakota.”

Engelmann estimates that of about 150 Jews in South Dakota, 50 are Messianic. Though members of B’rith Sholom all report having experienced stereotyping, everyone is emphatic that they have never experienced anti-Semitism.

But their club did face internal difficulties due to its open policy in the summer of 2013.

While he was in New York, Hanna learned that one of the club’s Messianics allowed a traveling Chabad emissary to wrap tefillin on him as a Jewish man. This act offended Hanna’s sensibilities enough that, upon returning to South Dakota, he had “frank conversations with some of the Messianics about the inappropriateness of claiming to be Jewish.”

Hanna suggested that the Messianics form their own club, with which B’rith Sholom would maintain friendly relations for the benefit of both groups.

But his suggestion went nowhere.

Hanna’s discomfort grew at the start of the fall semester, when another Messianic joined, bringing the membership to three Messianics and two traditional Jews, as two Jewish members had graduated the preceding spring.

Hanna went to Hunt to discuss his misgivings.

“I did understand where he was coming from,” Hunt said. “Having two-thirds Messianic Jews on the board of the Hillel is controversial.”

But Hunt insisted that with so few Jews, they should continue focusing on their shared identity.

By this point, Hanna was splitting his time between SDSU and the University of South Dakota, where he was working toward a doctorate in social psychology and behavioral neuroscience. He was also preparing to get married. These constraints, along with his dismay at the club’s new direction, moved him to leave B’rith Sholom at the beginning of this school year.

Hanna also emailed Hillel’s headquarters in Washington about the club’s status around this time, but he received no response. A Hillel representative told the Forward that the organization has no policy on Messianic Jewish participation at its branches and no statement on this issue.

But Hanna’s departure did result in one change: The remaining members amended the constitution to allow all members to serve as officers.

“This is just one step to tikkun olam, repairing the world,” Hunt said.

Today the club focuses on creating Jewish experiences. The members have visited a synagogue in Sioux Falls, S.D., and they come together to celebrate common holidays such as Hanukkah and Passover, and to enjoy the occasional Sabbath meal. They receive little outside funding, and members pay for most programming themselves.

Steps are constantly taken to avoid any discomfort among members. According to Hunt, the group rarely prays together, because that’s where differences would be most manifest.

Steinmeyer, now club secretary and treasurer, says any disagreements are discussed and resolved in a calm and civil manner. Despite his departure, Hanna and current club members report only mutual respect and no hard feelings. Hanna and his wife now live about an hour south of Brookings, and they hope to open their home to the Jewish community someday. He remains hopeful that a traditional Jewish club may still form.

Engelmann, meanwhile, has big plans for B’rith Sholom’s future. He told The Collegian that he hopes his club can inspire others at campuses around the state. The wider Jewish world, he said, has something valuable to learn from B’rith Sholom.

“Our differences are [not] a weakness, they give us strength,” Engelmann said. “Only through unity will we continue to grow and thrive. Our club is an example of how that unity can lead to great things. Unity through diversity is our future.”

Contact Derek Kwait at feedback@forward.com

A version of this story appeared in the March issue of New Voices.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.