AMY R. SISK Bismarck Tribune
Thirty miles northeast of Bismarck is a Jewish cemetery, accessible only if you know which gravel roads lead to a meadow path that leads to its door.
Inside the fence are 15 tombstones, many with inscriptions in Hebrew and some with photographs of the settlers whose names they bear. Several dozen Jewish families settled in this region at the start of the 20th century, attending religious services at each other’s homes and eventually in a former school which they turned into a synagogue.
Their houses were scattered across the prairie, the first of which were built just after the turn of the century. Settlers were among the first to come to this part of the state, before the founding of the nearby towns of Wing and Regan, established when the Northern Pacific Railway built its Wilton-Pingree line.
I visited the cemetery last Saturday as I do every year at the end of October. I came here for the first time to deal with something traumatic that I covered across the country three years ago.
I was a reporter for the Pittsburgh Public Radio Station when a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018 and killed 11 people. The following week was a blur for me. I reported on a vigil, a gathering and a funeral. For a story, I visited the 911 call center where I spoke to a dispatcher who stayed on the phone with a worshiper for 44 minutes while he was hiding from the gunman in a storage room in the basement. .
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It wasn’t until I returned to North Dakota the following year that the severity of what I had covered hit me. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the shooting, I felt lonely and deeply sad.
During this time, I remembered the Jewish cemetery near Regan. A friend had shown it to me a few years earlier when I was living here before I moved to Pennsylvania. I decided to come back as it was the only thing I could think of to mark the day.
My visit in 2019 was cathartic. Last year I went through the height of the coronavirus pandemic in North Dakota. I noticed that some of the graves were from the late 1910s and wondered what the Spanish flu had done to the community. This year, I stopped by the State Archives to research the Jewish history of the area before heading to the cemetery.
The Jews arrived here with the help of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, a New York-based organization that supported Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe as they started farms in the United States. Jewish settlers in the Regan region came mainly from Russia or neighboring countries.
Their children went to school with other young people whose families moved to northern Burleigh County from Norway and Finland. Students often learned English in class.
Historical accounts indicate that many Jewish immigrants struggled to make a living in agriculture and moved away or turned to other professions. One family opened a butcher shop, another sold shoes and another opened an ice cream parlor. Several worked in nearby coal mines. A man was playing the trombone in the Wing Band.
Most families left the prairie in the 1930s, choosing to move to larger cities. The Jewish population has always been small in North Dakota. The highest estimate I could find puts it at 1,155 in 1910.
Somewhere between six and 18 Jewish communities formed in North Dakota in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as immigrants sought to acquire land under homestead law. The first was near Washburn, settled before North Dakota became a state.
Many communities had cemeteries, although only a few sites have been maintained. One in Ashley in McIntosh County was rededicated in 2017 in what former Tribune reporter Caroline Grueskin reported “possibly the largest gathering of Jews in town since the 1920s.” It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, as is another near Devils Lake.
The stories of the settlers are perpetuated in the books they or their descendants wrote. Rev. William Sherman, alumnus of the Department of Sociology at North Dakota State University, documented the state’s first Jewish communities in a 1982 article. The boxes in the State Archives contain a number details of the Jews buried in Regan Cemetery, courtesy of records held by the late Frances Wold. She was a journalist and historian who kept detailed notes on the history of northern Burleigh County.
Much of the material in Wold’s collection comes from letters she exchanged with Toba Geller of Fargo in the 1970s. Geller chaired the North Dakota Jewish Historical Project and planned to write a book. The two women befriended through their many letters, sharing stories about their religious upbringing and trying to find accurate information about the early Jewish settlers. They had hoped to meet one day, but Geller died before they had a chance.
Wold made a point of trying to interview the descendants of those buried at the Jewish cemetery whenever she heard of an out-of-town arrest.
âIt is good to know that the people who are under the markers with the Star of David are not forgotten,â she wrote in a 1979 newspaper article. âIt is important that their history be recorded along with that of the plus many representatives of other nationalities and cultures who helped colonize this part of North Dakota. “
After visiting the Jewish cemetery last weekend, I made my way to Regan’s main cemetery, just outside of town. Wold is buried there and I wanted to pay tribute to him. I would have liked to meet her. It is largely because of her that the story of the Jewish settlers near Regan has not been lost.
As the anniversary of the shooting approached this year, I thought back to an interview I had done at a rally near the Pittsburgh synagogue. I spoke to a rabbi who, the morning we met, had attended the funeral of a friend who the gunman had killed. He told me that it is important to find meaning in pain.
I think that’s why I go to the cemetery. It was there that a year after the shooting, I felt I could finally mourn the lives lost that day in Pittsburgh.
This year, I left with a new goal: to honor the people buried there whose stories I feel I have started to learn. I returned home this weekend feeling a little more at peace.
Newsroom Notebook is a periodic column written by members of the Tribune editorial staff that focuses on our community and our daily lives.