“Chaim, do you have a daily minyan?” “Have you thought of opening a kosher restaurant?” “How many people do you get for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?” “Do you get a minyan for Eichah?” these are just some of the common questions posed to me, and my fellow shluchim, all the time. While the questioners are well-meaning and are truly curious about Jewish life in remote locations, it really misses the point of the Rebbe’s vision and our work.
As a Chabad house we indeed offer all the incredible and attractive yom tov programs, from “Sushi in the Sukkah” to “Purim in China,” from Lag B’Omer moon bounces to celebrations with the wonderful Maccabeats, but there’s a thematic approach to all of our work which mustn’t ever be forgotten: the individual Jew. Yes, we build shuls and mikva’os because they are foundational to Jewish life, and of course we want Jewish day schools and kosher eateries, as that enhances mitzvah observance, but it all boils down to connecting with a Jew or Jewess and helping them find their inherent place tachas kanfei haShechinah.
In July, a young man, Michael, was arrested in our area and charged with a felony. I’m not a judicial expert, but it didn’t look good for him. This neshamah made a big mistake and has been locked up since. He hasn’t had a trial or a bail-reduction hearing, his defense team is shvach as the family can’t afford better, he spent the High Holidays and Sukkos behind bars, and his future is in limbo.
As a shliach, I’ve been visiting inmates for over a decade and it doesn’t get easier. Whether at the women’s prison in Billings, Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, Federal Transfer Center in Shelby, or the various local jails, it’s always heartbreaking. I do my best to be objectively supportive, thinking of the Torah concept of teshuvah and the humanity of the inmate I’m visiting and the families they left behind, but it’s always hard as the brother or sister across the glass pours out his or her heart to you.
For me, there’s a touch of guilt as well. I constantly ask myself, “Am I doing enough for these incarcerated Jews?” I know — or, more accurately, I think — that I am there for them, but can I do more? I know that during my visits I inspire them to fight on and, like Yosef HaTzaddik, to find meaning in their jail cell, but as Michael is only ten minutes away from my home and I can visit him as often as I’d like, shouldn’t I be there every day? Yet, with so many other Yidden, not to mention my family, in need of my time and guidance, it’s simply impossible. I’m conflicted internally. Do you know how distressing it is to receive texts from a widowed mother in California asking about her son who is behind bars thousands of miles away?
We shluchim are assisted greatly by the devoted team at the Aleph Institute who give day and night to support inmates, their families, and the rabbis serving the inmates. It was through their advocacy that I was given permission to bring Michael a pair of tefillin and many sefarim, but lockup in Montana is no Otisville; the amenities available to a Jewish inmate are scarce and there’s little that I can do about it. How can you not cry when you hear an inmate tell you that he blew shofar with his mouth, making the sounds, because an actual shofar was not allowed inside? How could your soul not be warmed when hearing of an inmate who knew fasting on Yom Kippur would get him into some trouble with his fellow inmates, but he fasted anyway?
This is the part of our work that is less exciting, less known, but captures the essence of what it’s all about. The navi Yeshaya tells us that when Mashiach comes, “V’atem telaktu l’achad echad bnei Yisrael — and you shall be gathered one by one, O children of Israel.” The Rebbe, in anticipation of Mashiach, sent his shluchim and shluchos to hold each Jewish person’s hand as they traverse the world that includes some painful moments and consequences that are, at times, unbearable. Sitting at Gallatin County Detention Center, looking through the glass as Michael showed me a letter he wrote to Hashem, pictures he drew of his journey on the inside, and sharing with me over the jail phone that he was helped immensely when reading Psalm 137 in Tehillim, I felt like I was holding his hand and he was holding mine.
This was the Rebbe’s vision for our Jewish family — ensuring no one ever feels alone again. Whether someone’s on vacation at Yellowstone, stranded on the I-90, or locked up for a crime, we are here to guarantee he or she is never forgotten. We don’t seek accolades, we don’t need the fanfare, but it’s good for the Jewish world to know that in addition to awesome sushi and single-malt l’chaim, there are men and women out on the frontlines, dealing with darkness and shining as much light as possible in its face.
No Jew left behind, for real!
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 email@example.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.