Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his family

By R’ Chaim Bruk

We never know what G-d has planned, and we just need to remain curious and open to the direction He seeks for us. It feels frustrating at times, but it doesn’t have to be; it’s a choice we make to be open to His guidance and direction.

Last week, Bozeman’s winter kicked into high gear. We had temperatures that dropped way below freezing, over a foot of snow in the valley (where we live) and with the snap of His “finger,” winter is a thing. Winters in Montana are glorious. The snow is majestic, the cold is refreshing and crisp, and there is a certain calm that a snow-blanketed morning brings with it, but one must have the right clothing or it can be a life-or-death reality.

As it turns out, Chavie and I are in the post-Tishrei spring-cleaning-in-the-fall. When you are a family of seven, with a mikveh in your home, a shul that was in your home until last month, and guests galore all year round, things pile up and cleaning is therapeutic. Chavie and I both enjoy ridding the house of anything that doesn’t need to be here, and it’s especially worthwhile when your kids play “musical rooms” every few months. We are the anti-hoarders who don’t hang on to very much that isn’t needed or extremely sentimental.

As we were cleaning, we accumulated a stack of winter clothing, mostly hats and scarves, that needed a home, so I asked my assistant Mendel, a devoted yeshiva graduate, to head over to Walmart and find homeless people who could use some warm clothing. We don’t have homelessness in Montana like in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, as our weather doesn’t make it very appealing, but we do have some. And though we have a Warming Center where they can sleep at night, it only opens in November and is closed during the daytime. So warm clothing for the men and women outdoors is really helpful.

Mendel delivered the clothing to a very grateful clientele. One of them mentioned Mendel’s yarmulke and said, “I know what that is. I had a bar mitzvah, too.” It turns out that Eric, a.k.a. Shlomo, is a Jewish man who has been homeless since March and is a real mensch. He grew up in Kentucky, served in the U.S. Armed Forces and in Israel, and is now living on the frigid streets of Bozeman. Mendel went back the next day to put on tefillin with him for the first time in decades and farbreng with him and his sparkling neshamah, inspiring and reigniting a fellow Yid simply because of a hat and scarf.

The minute Mendel told me the story and the reception he received from Eric and his fellow Walmart parking-lot dwellers, I sent out a quick e-mail to my community, inviting them to search their homes for any new or lightly used winter clothing that could benefit those in need. The response was overwhelming for a community our size. Eleven families reached out within 24 hours and delivered bags of clothing to our center or had Mendel come and pick it up from their homes. Of those 11 families, three of them are not regulars at shul and two have never been to our shul at all, but they are Jewish and what inspired them about their Jewishness was the ability to help those in need via the Share the Warmth Drive created by their Jewish community.

Mendel has gone back a few times since and has met wonderful people from all over the country who are, sadly, homeless, but full of zest for life despite their hardships. Many of them are veterans who fought for our country, and due to internal and external challenges have ended up on the streets. They shouldn’t be looked down upon; they should be greeted with genuine smiles and uplifted with respect. Mendel admitted to me two days into this campaign that he’s learned so much from them. They each have such an incredible life story and it’s really life-altering to interact with them.

In this week’s parashah, Vayeira, we read about the “eishel” that Avraham planted in Beersheba. The verse says, “And he planted an eishel in Beer-Sheba, and he called there in the name of the L-rd, the G-d of the world.” What is an “eishel?” Rashi quotes two opinions from the Midrash/Talmud: “Rav and Shmuel. One says that it was an orchard from which to bring fruits for the guests at the meal, and one says that it was an inn for lodging, in which there were all sorts of fruits…” 

It’s amazing! Unlike the Midrash that focuses so much on the fact that Avraham sought to teach them to bentch, to say Grace after Meals (Birkat HaMazon) and thank Hashem for the meal, here the focus is on how much effort was put into preparing food for those would come by.

Do you get it? Random strangers would be traveling through the area in Southern Israel and instead of getting them some fruit from the marketplace or from a peddler, Avraham and Sarah wanted it to be luscious, juicy, and fresh, and so they planted an orchard. Sure, G-d would become part of the conversation when chatting with their guests, but the prep involved for these travelers reflects a genuine care for the physical well-being of fellow humans.

It’s something we should take to heart. When meeting someone who is downtrodden, don’t judge, don’t bemoan, and don’t harass, G-d forbid—just be kind, offering simple kindness, with no strings attached.

My late Bubby Esther Goldman would always give the collectors on the subway a dollar or two. I once asked her why she was giving funds to an African American collector, when it was clear that most of his fellow African Americans were ignoring him. She said something that has lived with me since: “Chaim Shaul, what does it matter what they do? I need to do what’s right. That’s all that matters.”

Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail rabbi@jewishmontana.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.

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