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.

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.


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