ASHLEY, N.D. — The journey that led to Rebecca Bender co-writing a book on Jewish homesteaders who came in the early 1900s to southeast North Dakota started in 2013 when her then-15-year-old son asked questions about their ancestors.
That year, the two visited the Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery, where Bender’s great-grandfather is buried. As her son Lincoln began asking about the 400 Russian and Romanian Jews who started an estimated 85 farms in McIntosh County, Bender realized she didn’t have a lot of answers.
“I made a personal vow to myself that I’m going to do research so that I can answer his questions and also preserve the memories of these courageous pioneers,” she said.
The effort to collect information led to the cemetery being named to the National Register of Historic Place list in 2015 and, this year, the publication of Bender’s research in the form of a 368-page book titled “Still.”
“I had all of these stories, both stories that other people had gathered and stories I had gathered,” she said. “I felt like I have been inspired by these stories for so many years . . . I wanted to share this information.”
The nonfiction piece published in March and was co-authored by her late father, Kenneth Bender; it tells the story of her ancestors and other Jewish farmers in southeast North Dakota. It lays out how her family came from Odessa, Russia, to Ashley, N.D., the challenges they faced and the connections they built with other Jews and farmers of other faiths and culture who lived in the area.
The book includes five generations of Benders' family in the area — her son is the fifth.
“Still” was published through the North Dakota State University Press after Bender, who lives about 30 miles southwest of Ashley in Eureka, S.D., spoke with Editor Suzzanne Kelley.
“I could tell she was a good researcher and that she could tell a story,” Kelley said of Bender.
There wasn’t a good history of the Jewish homesteaders and their experiences in North Dakota, Bender and Kelley said. Kelley used a book in one of her history classes that spoke about what she called a dismal history of Jewish farming in the region.
“What Rebecca was able to bring forward was people coming out with intent and succeeding,” Kelley said. “We just don’t typically hear of Jewish farmers period.”
Bender said one of the main themes in “Still” is the continuity of the Jewish faith despite challenges her ancestors faced. They had the general obstacles farmers encountered, but they were limited in obtaining kosher food, saw a shortage of Jewish educators for their children, and had trouble traveling and celebrating the Jewish faith at synagogue, for example.
The title of the book stemmed from a journalist who asked Bender if she was still Jewish, she said. She initially chuckled at the question, but she thought later it was an insightful question about the history of Jews in North Dakota, she said.
“When you think about being persecuted in Russia, coming and living in a sod house far from any large Jewish educational or religious institutions, it’s sort of miraculous that these people retained their religion, let alone that five generations after that, we are still Jewish,” she said.
The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise estimates more than 6.9 million Jews were living last year in the U.S., more than 6 1/2 times the million Jews reported in 1899. In that same time period, the AICE estimates the Jewish population in North Dakota dropped from 1,750 to 400.
North Dakota had the fourth largest number of Jewish farming homesteaders of any state, surpassed only by New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, Bender said. Now it has the second lowest Jewish population — South Dakota had 250 last year, the AICE said.
Jack Russell Weinstein, a philosophy professor at University of North Dakota who is also Jewish, believes the North Dakota estimate is high. His estimates, based on those he knows and counts from synagogues, place the count of identifiable Jews in the state at half of the AICE numbers — about 30 to 40 families.
“These are educated guesses,” he said of his estimates. “They’re not in anyway scientific.”
North Dakota’s population likely dropped because the farming required in North Dakota was not consistent with the techniques used in the immigrants’ country, Weinstein said. Some couldn’t make the living of farming work, so they either moved to a different area or found another trade.
“You see the largest concentration in the cities because Jews tend to do the type of work that needs the density of other people,” he said, describing shop keepers, doctors, lawyers and merchants.
Weinstein hasn’t read the book, but he said it’s hard to live in an area that challenges a person’s culture or religion, whether it was a century ago in the isolated Midwest or today in North Dakota, where there are few synagogues.
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“If people leave, it’s not necessarily that they don’t like it or they don’t want to live here,” he said. “It’s that they don’t have the structure, or they haven’t historically had the structure, to live the kind of life that’s afforded to them.”
Jews are not different from everyone else, Weinstein said. Bender said she found similarities between her family and other settlers of different faiths, and she noted stories of kindness despite differences.
“Just the way they helped each other was so touching to me that I knew I wanted people to be aware of that aspect of the Jewish-North Dakota experience,” she said.
North Dakota attracted settlers from a number of countries and religions, Kelley said, but there is little history on those groups and more information on Germans from Russia, Norwegians and Swedish immigrants.
The Press is getting more submissions on histories of different cultures in the region, and students are doing more research on those topics, Kelley said.
“I think it is very exciting that we have very diverse beginnings in our state,” she said.