I’ve been asked often enough how it is for a Brooklyn boy to live Out West, the Wild West, in Big Sky Country. It’s a valid question and when posed by fellow Orthodox Jews, the meaning of the question is more about kosher food, Jewish schools, and a sense of a kehillah. I usually respond by telling them that I miss parts of frum community life and being close to family, but what else should I miss? Traffic? Pollution? Crime? Taxes?
Yet when the very same question is asked by self-labeled “secularists,” it comes with a clear bewilderment as to how a chassid could live in an area with farmers/ranchers/nature lovers who, in their estimation, aren’t the same caliber as the “well-educated” geniuses in Philly or Sherman Oaks.
Having lived out here for over 13 years, I am bothered by the question. Not because I’m in denial, somehow thinking that the mentality in Billings and Scarsdale isn’t different, as it sure is. It’s because the idea that a person’s personality, ideology, intellectual ability, or worldview is somehow defined by his geographic location, where he’s chosen to live, or where he’s been raised is ludicrous. True, this is labeled “fly over country,” as, up until recently, not many flights made their way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Kalispell, Montana, but accessibility to nonstop flights to Paris isn’t an indication of the caliber of human beings who live in either place.
Last Shabbos, I was sitting in my library between Minchah and Ma’ariv, gazing out my windows at my American flag. It was waving proudly in the evening wind as the sun was setting through the smoke-filled sky (details on that in another article, iy’H), and my heart was overwhelmed with gratefulness. I wasn’t only grateful for the blessing that this flag and everything it stands for has brought to humanity, including Am Yisrael, but I was grateful to live in a state where patriotism is still alive and a love for our country is still palpable at every sports game, every rodeo, and in the homes of its citizens from Glendive in the east to Dillon in the southwest. In Montana, patriotism isn’t defined by political party or economic philosophy, it isn’t defined by an individual’s religion or education, it isn’t even a result of having the highest per capita rate of veterans in the country. It is because of the Montanan patriotism that we have so many vets and soldiers serving, that we respect our law enforcement officers, and that we wave our flag happily.
It’s a unique place to live as it interconnects many types of people into one community.
This week’s double parashah, Nitzavim-Vayelech, begins with, “You are all standing this day before the L-rd, your G-d, the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, every man of Israel. Your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers.”
Moses, just before his passing, gathered all the Jews, no matter their history or status, Jewish from birth or a convert, wealthy or poor, those who loved him and those who didn’t, and even those who tricked the Jews into accepting them as their own and turned out to be liars—everyone was gathered for a reminder about the covenant that Hashem had made with the Jewish people.
I’ve always loved those two verses, because it’s easy, almost natural, to get caught up in one bubble or another: we are in the “yeshivish” community or the “Ivy League” community; I’m in the “chassidish” community or in the “1%” community. It’s these superficial divisions that are the source of most of our communal and individual issues.
Here in Montana, you’d never know who is a well-off Wall Street broker and who is a hard-working painter, who the local mayor is and who the garbage collector who works for her is — it’s simply a non-issue. We do have many wealthy people in our town, most are middle-class, and, of course, like in every place, there are many poor people. We take care of each other. We have amazing charitable organizations to help those in need and we all have a love for our beloved Montana and the treasured United States of America that is refreshing and apolitical.
About 12 years ago, my flag was knocked down by a windstorm and I never replaced it. We had a spot for it, a few empty screw slots that reminded me of its existence, but it was never enough to make me put it back up. I’ve always loved this incredible country, but you know how love is …. Over the summer, I was doing some home repairs, and I decided it was time to do my part in honoring the country that has done so much for my family, starting from when my Zayde escaped Poland and found refuge in New York. You can’t imagine how many people have commented positively since I put it up.
We daven outside in the front yard due to COVID and the flag is part of our outdoor shul. I don’t think that America is flawless or that it’s a perfect union, but I do believe it’s the one place in the world that if people choose to live side-by-side happily and honorably, they can do it. I know this to be true because in Bozeman, Montana, it’s the way of life.
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, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.