Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his family

Last week, I had the z’chus to celebrate at the chasunah of a dear friend, which took place in South Florida. It was the first out-of-state simcha I attended since COVID-19 began, and getting there from Montana was no picnic.

It entailed three flights there, two flights back, and wearing a mask for over 20 hours in airports and on planes, but it was an awesome night and I’m so glad I made it. However, since it was a Thursday-night wedding, I was on shpilkes as to whether I’d make it home for Shabbos. I was flying from Fort Lauderdale to Salt Lake City on Friday morning, where I had a 45-minute stopover, and then on to Bozeman. I was concerned about the stopover, as a little delay in leaving Florida or a delay getting to the gate in SLC, an airport under major construction, would force me to miss my only way home for Shabbos.

In general, I’m an anxious guy. It’s something I work on constantly, and though I’m getting better at living in the present, I still have a long way to go in this herculean effort. Chavie and I discussed the possibility that she would be home alone for Shabbos with the kids, which is challenging without neighbors, cousins, or parents or in-laws to help out; yet, we weren’t too worried about where I’d be for Shabbos because we know the incredible Zippel family in SLC. We knew that even if not ideal to be stuck in SLC, I wouldn’t be left with Mormons for the weekend — I’d be in a heimishe, warm, and familial environment.

I made it home, baruch Hashem. Touching down in Bozeman four hours before candle lighting felt so good, but the comfort of knowing that our people are here for each other wasn’t overlooked.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, the beloved parashah I read for my bar mitzvah and could still chant in my sleep, we read about Yosef HaTzaddik in the home of Potifar and his immoral wife. In a moment of lust on her part and weakness on his, the pure and holy Yosef is moments away from succumbing to her seduction and breaking the Abrahamic values gifted to him by his father Yaakov and mother Rachel. No one would blame him for making that choice, for choosing convenience and pleasure over principles, but at the last moment he fights back, suppresses the passion, refrains from sin … and is then accused of being a rapist by Potifar’s humiliated wife, landing him in jail. What stopped him at that moment? How did he go from “Why not? Let’s have a licentious moment.” to “No way, get away from me; we are done here.”?

Rashi quotes from the Gemara in Sotah and tells us that Yosef “saw the visage of his father Yaakov” and chose courage. The holy image of his father Yaakov, a man who stuck to his morals through thick and thin, and dealt with Eisav, Laban, a wrestling angel, and Shechem. A man who was alone, away from his loved ones for so many years, and yet never lowered his standards or surrendered to his surroundings. Yosef in his feeblest moment didn’t capitulate; he instead was stirred and guided to make the right choice. He and Yaakov set the stage for Jewry for all eternity, so that when we are alone, no matter where we may be for a Shabbos that wasn’t planned by us, we, too, can remain steadfast in our Yiddishkeit, celebrating an uplifting Shabbos even in solitude.

Yet, there is something really powerful about practicing Judaism with fellow Jews, which is why, historically, if a Jew showed up in a community, whether in Girona, Baghdad, or Kremenchug, he was immediately welcomed with hospitality par excellence and made to feel at home. Even today, if a Jew lands in a large community, whether Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, or Boston, multiple people and shuls will open their door to give them a taste of family. Yet, the Rebbe took it a step further, offering a home for Jews not only in places where there are full-fledged frum communities. Like Avraham Avinu and his partner Sarah, who were the only Jews in town, the Rebbe wanted every place on earth to be a warm nest for his children, whether visiting or stranded.

I still remember vividly a summer Shabbos about nine years ago when we had about 20 frum visitors at our Shabbos table. They had reserved weeks or at least a few days in advance, and we were excited to host them. We take in Shabbos a bit earlier than the “z’man” in the summer, as the official onset of Shabbos is very late, and as we were sitting in the middle of the fish course, enjoying our time together, things got interesting. First, three guys knocked on the door and asked if they could join us. Of course, within moments they were making Kiddush and part of our growing family of Shabbos Jews. Twenty-five minutes later, many minutes past shkiah, sunset, two guys came bursting in, drenched from a storm. They said, “We were supposed to be camping in Yellowstone, but there was a torrential downpour, so with a short time left to Shabbos we sped to Bozeman to join y’all. We hope it’s OK.” They joined, too, to the amusement of us all.

Chavie and I love that.

We love living on the frontline, knowing that we aren’t serving only the incredible local Jews, but are here for whatever any Jew may need. An El Al plane lands in Billings — Chavie rushes, with three kids in tow, to bring food to 300+ Jews. FedEx loses the dinner boxes for 63 USY campers who are part of the Conservative movement and are in Yellowstone — we get them dinner. A Jewish woman in her early thirties dies in a tragic car accident eight miles from our home — I officiate at a one-man funeral procession, following her hearse from the Bozeman funeral home to the airport, as I say “Yoshev B’Seser” from Tehillim (91), sending her holy body back to her family in Ohio.

This is Klal Yisrael. This is Am Yisrael. This is Bnei Yisrael.

The Rebbe didn’t want us to rely only on deep meditation to keep us connected in times of worry; he didn’t want us to rely on a Jacob-like visage revealing itself to us to keep us out of trouble; he wanted us to have centers of love where we can show up and be welcomed with respect and warmth, 24/7. No, Chabad is not your travel agent and hotel service (sometimes people make that mistake and it’s wrong), but we are a place that cares for humanity with boundless devotion and unyielding kindness. Thank you to Benny and Sharonne Zippel for ensuring my Shabbos worries were minimal because I knew my Jewish family would be there for me if I needed them.

If you read my weekly article, you know how hard we work to raise the funds to keep the flame of Yiddishkeit alive in Big Sky Country. This week we are raising $80,000 to keep us going with unstoppable love. If you would like to be our shutaf, partner, in our holy mission, please visit JewishMontana.com/Donate to be part of the Montana miracle. 

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 rabbi@jewishmontana.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.

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