There’s a popular saying that wherever there’s Coca-Cola, there’s Chabad.
That’s true even in Marlboro Country – Bozeman, Montana, where Rabbi Chaim Bruk, 25, and his wife, Chavi, 22, have brought the light of Torah.
THE JEWISH PRESS: How many Jewish families are there in Montana?
Rabbi Bruk: About 500 families – roughly 1,200 Jews. That’s a very small population. We’ll be involved primarily in adult education, with classes in Judaism, its customs and culture. I live in Bozeman, but from time to time I’ll give Torah lessons in neighboring towns like Billings and Helena.
What made you come to Bozeman, of all places?
I was here three times in the past during the summers, when I was part of the Lubavitch corps that visit remote states to bring them Yiddishkeit. I saw a growing Jewish community thirsting for a connection to Judaism.
What do you do about kosher food or a minyan?
Kosher food doesn’t exist in Montana. Meat is shipped in from Rubashkin’s in Iowa, and dairy products I bring back with me whenever I visit New York. The closest mikvah is in Salt Lake City, a 7-hour drive from here.
We have no minyan here either. This Shavuos will be the first time I will have a minyan in my house for the reading of the Torah. We were given a Torah by a couple in Helena, Montana, who had an old one they brought with them from their shul in Chicago after it closed down. They never used it and so they gave it to us.
A couple weeks back, two Chabad emissaries were chosen to join President Bush in Washington for the National Day of Prayer – and you were one of those two. How did that come about?
Well, I received a phone call from Rabbi Levi Shemtov in Washington telling me it would be a good opportunity for a young shaliach like myself to attend this event, where I’d be able to meet my senators and congressmen and other influential people who could help me later on in my mission in Montana.
I’d already promised some people that I’d attend an Israeli fair that day, so I was faced with a hard choice: either take advantage of an opportunity to get to know other Jews in Montana – and, after all, that’s what I’m here for – or go to Washington. In the end I decided I would have an opportunity to meet these local Jews later, while the opportunity in Washington was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Did you meet with the president?
Unfortunately no, because he was very busy and left the room before anybody had the chance to speak with him on a personal basis. But I met with my senators and with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman – who was very surprised that Chabad is in Montana.
I met with Montana’s congressional delegation, talking to each representative about Jewish and Israeli issues. I made some good connections with my senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester. I already got a call from Baucus’s office informing me that he wants to participate in a Jewish community function here.
It’s important that our elected officials understand that even in Montana, Judaism is alive and well and thriving.
Rabbi Bruk (r) visiting with Senator Lieberman in Washington.
You were quoted as saying that there are many “closet Jews” in Montana who are ashamed of their Jewishness and that you hope your visibility will bring some of them out into the open. Has that happened yet?
Yes, we always invite people over for Shabbos meals and I hear things like, “You know, rabbi, it’s been 30 years since we experienced a real Shabbos dinner.” An older woman said that when she first saw me, I reminded her of her grandfather. Once, when I stopped at a red light in town, a guy pulled up aside of me and rolled down his window and said “Hey are you the new rabbi in town?” I said I was. He said “Well, I’m Jewish.” So I invited him for Shabbos.
Every Shabbos we have a class of between 7 and 12 people who come to learn the Torah portion of the week. The same people keep coming back, so that’s a good sign.
The word is definitely out. It’s not going to happen overnight. People who moved to Montana were not too connected to Yiddishkeit in the first place, but slowly there will be a change. We’re also working with students on the campus of Montana State University. I’m getting phone calls and e-mails from people who’ve seen our website. It’s been phenomenal in terms of public relations. One of the TV stations recently interviewed me and during the report on the evening news, they mentioned that anyone wanting more information should check out www.Jewishmontana.com. We received a lot of hits as a result.
Why do Jews choose to move to Montana, and where do they usually come from?
Mostly from the West Coast. I don’t know why they’re moving, but the word is out that Bozeman is a gorgeous place to live, that there’s a lot of recreation here – skiing in the winter, hiking in the summer, a national park, fly fishing.
The more Jews who come, the better. As a shaliach, it’s wonderful to see a Jewish community grow.