Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his family

By R’ Chaim Bruk

As you know, I was in New York last week for one night. I got the usual questions: “Why only for a night? Why not stay a little longer?”

Truth be told, I would have loved to stay longer in New York, despite the insane traffic, the odd laws, and the noise that never seems to end. I have two siblings in New York—one in Crown Heights and one in Monsey, my dad lives there part-time, the Rebbe’s Ohel is in Queens, and I love eating out. Yet, the luxury of being away from home for lengthy periods of time isn’t possible. Baruch Hashem, Chavie and I have five kinderlach with many needs and a vibrant Chabad Center; when you don’t have family down the block who can pitch in, going away is very hard. Our home/Chabad operation needs a six-person staff but is being done by two, so if one leaves town more than necessary it’s extremely tough.

I’m not sharing this because I am seeking your pity. I most certainly am not; I feel eternally blessed for our lot in life and our unique mission to the amazing people of Montana. There is nothing in the world that can take me away from Big Sky Country and the wonderful city of Bozeman I am privileged to call home. So why am I sharing this?

A few weeks ago, a fellow named Lewis who lives in rural Oregon and is a friend/supporter of many Chabad centers domestically and internationally, stopped by our shul and spent about two hours farbrenging in my office. Before he left he said to me that wherever he goes he tells Jewish people that they must know that the ones who make the biggest sacrifice in the Chabad house are the children of the shluchim, because they never chose to live out in the hinterlands; their parents made that choice for them, though they need to spend their entire childhood living with that choice.

I thought a lot about Lewis’s words, and I think he’s spot-on. Chavie and I made a choice in 2006 to leave New York, to leave behind Estihana and Prime Grill, leave behind daily minyanim and all our childhood friends, leave behind the community we knew, appreciated, and valued and move to beautiful Bozeman. When Chaya was adopted in 2009, Zeesy in 2010, Menny in 2013, Shoshana in 2016, and Chana Laya in 2017, they were welcomed into Chabad-house life, living far from the oholei Torah and Bais Rivkah schools to which they would’ve naturally belonged and whose values we seek to instill in them despite their very different surroundings. At times I feel bad for what they have to endure and feel guilty to have put them in these tough positions as I watch them struggle to learn Hebrew kriah or to know more about the frum ins-and-outs. But when I think about it deeply, when I give it time and look out of the narrow boxes of the square frumkeit that existed in my childhood, I realize that my guilt is unwarranted. Let me explain why.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, the last in the book of Bereishis, we read about the blessings that Yaakov gave to Ephraim and Menashe, his beloved grandsons, sons of Yosef. He said, “With you, Israel will bless.” When Jews for all eternity will come to bless their children, they will say, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Indeed, why is it that Jews bless their kids to be like Ephraim and Menashe? Why not like Gad and Naftali? Elazar and Isamar? Isn’t it a bit odd that on erev Yom Kippur—or, for those who have the custom, like my dad, every Friday night—we ask G-d to bless our kids to be like the two boys who grew up far away from their Jewish community and relatives in Israel? Distant from their grandfather Jacob? The kids who grew up in the Egyptian palace surrounded by idol-worshipping, pagan-loving gentiles? Is that the best we’ve got?

Yes, indeed, it’s the best we’ve got.

Being Jewish isn’t easy by any means, and raising children in 2021 to live with Torah values no matter what community they’re part of isn’t a picnic, but the solution isn’t to try to hide them from the world around them. The berachah we give our children is that, like Ephraim and Menashe, they can and should interact directly with the world around them, with commerce and outreach and everything in between, and not only remain devoted to the values of Torah, but the interaction itself will serve as an enhancement to their Torah adherence and appreciation for a daf of Gemara and a ma’amar of Chassidus. Ephraim and Menashe certainly knew the world had a very dark side—they saw it up close—but they were also gifted with parents like Yosef and Osnas, G-d-fearing people with Abrahamic values who endowed to their children a recognition that in a world of chaos and idiocy, a world in which their neighbors pray to a river, they have a G-d who is the Borei olam u’Manhigo, the Creator of the world and its Director, and therefore they can choose the path of their parents without feeling like losers.

When I look at my children, who have to hear “Jingle Bells” here and there and know a little too much about Halloween for my comfort level, I see that they love Shabbos, they know what we Jews believe and are comfortable with it, they love driving down Main Street with a menorah on their car roof, and they proudly say we don’t eat out but the sushi chef comes to our house and makes awesome kosher sushi. So I know that we are on the right path.

I pray that my kids end up like Ephraim and Menashe—that despite the immense winds of assimilation and secularism, they too will always see the value in “derech Yisrael sava,” in the beautiful path of Am Yisrael and Toras Yisrael. Gad and Naftali were holy and Elazar and Isamar were the embodiment of spirituality, but Ephraim and Menashe are what our kids should look like: in the world, yet above it.

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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