It’s true what Rabbi Chaim Shaul Bruk says about what is happening out here in Big Sky country of Montana. For starters, there are the enormous snow-capped mountains, whose peaks seem to touch the sky. Then there are the rapids that run just as wildly as any Hollywood epic tale about the Wild West, except that in this case it’s all real, and even more glorious than in the pictures.

For the past seventeen years, Rabbi Chaim and his wife Chavie have been bringing authentic Yiddishkeit to the Jews of Montana and like you, I’ve been reading about it in his weekly column here at the 5TJT. So, we finally made it to Bozeman to see it for ourselves, and we can contrast this piece of glorious wilderness with the image that has formed in my mind after reading about it for so long.

{IMG Mrs. Chavie & Rabbi Chaim Shaul Bruk

{Caption: Rabbi Chaim and Rebbetzin Chavie Bruk, Chabad shluchim in Bozeman, Montana.

Montana is an obscure part of the United States. There are no controversies here, at least none that dominate the news on Fox or CNN. This mountainous state in the northwestern section of the country is a vast piece of real estate that boasts a population of around 900,000, roughly a half million fewer people than all of Nassau County on Long Island. And all in a state the size of Japan.

There are miles of wide-open space here, and in Bozeman, there’s a tremendous amount of construction going on as people seek to escape the congested, overcrowded cities of the east and west. Real estate prices have tripled over the last few years.

And then there are the Jews. Most of the people we met over Shabbos at the stylish and well-appointed Chabad House were traveling from the east. Some of them were from New York and New Jersey, and a few were from South Florida, all of them looking to experience something new and different.

The two couples we met from Boca Raton told us they were traveling ostensibly to escape the summer heat and humidity of South Florida. One told me that it was about 100 degrees last week, with the humidity just as high. As long as we’re on the subject of the weather, I might as well mention that here in Montana, morning temperatures are in the mid-40s rising to about 75 to 85 degrees during the course of the day.

For those of you who don’t know, Chaim Shaul is my first cousin, the son of Chana Laya Bruk, a’h. As a young Chabad yeshiva student before he was married, he began coming out to Bozeman to bring authentic Yiddishkeit to the locals, who were distant from their faith both spiritually and geographically.

It’s not unusual for him to help an 80-year-old man put on tefillin for the first time, or bring matzos or other religious articles to people so they can experience an authentic Pesach Seder or Shabbos meal.

Chaim’s mom, Chana Laya, battled an illness for about twelve years until she succumbed on the day of my son Dovi’s wedding in 2011. She was a great mother and an inspiring figure to her children and her community of Crown Heights.

There are about 4,000 Jews residing over the vast expanse of the state, which is 145,509 square miles, making it the fourth largest state in the country. We visited Yellowstone Park twice over the five days we were here. Yellowstone is one of the 429 national parks in the country with breathtaking sights for your eyes to see and your mind to behold.

Chaim Shaul and Chavie are shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, two of about 5,000 others who are located in various parts of the world. Their sole objective remains to prepare and create a world imbued with holiness that fulfills the Divine plan to bring spirituality to a physical and material world.

That is the charge that the Rebbe gave to his emissaries, a mission the Bruks perform admirably. This week marks the 30th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was niftar on the 3rd of Tammuz in 1994.

Chavie Bruk was born and raised in San Antonio, where her parents have served as shluchim for the last 40 years. Chavie and Chaim are now celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary and are an extremely dynamic couple, playing a vital role that caters to the spiritual needs of the men and women in their unusual community.

Chaim Shaul writes about one subject quite frequently, and that is that they are the parents of five adopted children, three of whom were away at summer camp when we were there, and another who was going to camp this week, and the youngest, six-year-old Chana Layah, who was on her way to San Antonio to spend part of the summer with her grandparents, to give her mom and dad the opportunity to recharge their batteries, so to speak.

We had minyanim both Friday night and Shabbos thanks to the many guests who were passing through town, and both services were followed by a lavish dinner that kept us well fed throughout Shabbos in a part of the country where a kosher restaurant is a foreign concept and a culinary improbability at least for the near future.

But if it’s 4th of July weekend and there is no school and you can get away from work and want to do something unique and special, I urge you to visit Montana for a memorable jaunt with plenty of places to go and things to do.

After driving several hundred miles over a few days just to take in the Montana scenery, I assure you that it is a sight you won’t likely forget. The images of tall mountains, blue lakes, endless valleys, immense trees, and miles and miles of green, untamed wilderness will be permanently etched in your mind for years to come.

Whether it’s Yellowstone National Park or the long route on the way to the park, I will never forget or unsee what I have dubbed “G-d’s canvas,” and certainly, if I can say this, some of His best work, in my opinion. When you sit back and take in what these mountain ranges are saying to you, it’s the majestic combination of colors that says it all.

There are sepias and ambers and beiges and browns that mesh beautifully with one another. Some of the mountains are covered with massive amounts of greenery, sometimes thousands of trees, or just miles of verdant grass growing out of the mountains.

And then there is the roaming wildlife, which seems to be very much at home living side by side with the humans. Some of the tourists we spent Shabbos with said they saw bears several times at various locations. We saw buffalo roaming free and at one point, literally miles of bulls grazing on grasslands, sharing the vast ecosystem with moose, wolves, deer, elk, and other large mammals.

Even though Chavie and Chaim have been here for more than a decade and a half, the ironic fact remains that when they successfully make a young man or woman or young family more religiously observant, it is vital that they leave Montana. They urge the newly observant to move to a place where there are proper yeshivas for their children and where they can integrate into a wider Jewish community, including observing kashrus fully without having to bend oneself like a contortionist to find all the ingredients.

But this is the life of a shluchah and shliach, living the life and fulfilling the vision of the Rebbe in real time and in real life, and that means that some of their congregants have to move on to frum communities. One of the first things the Bruks did when they moved here was to build a mikvah. Theirs was the first in the state of Montana. On Saturday night, Shabbos ended close to 10:30 p.m. and Chavie said she already had several appointments for women who were scheduled to use the mikvah.

Of course, I don’t know who the people are, but it is more than likely that they do not necessarily observe Shabbos or even have kosher homes, but perhaps you can arguably say that it all starts with the mikvah.

My casual observation is that if there’s a Jewish man in shul, there’s a good chance that he is married to a non-Jewish woman. And if there’s a woman in shul on Shabbos, it’s very likely that her spouse is a non-Jew as well. This is the composition of the heartland of Jewish America and no, I’m not talking about Chicago or Houston.

These are people for whom their Jewishness was not anything resembling the focus of their lives. If it was anything at all, it was something between a cultural reality or just plain incidental. But then after possibly decades of living here, a rabbi shows up to talk to them about mezuzah or matzah or about Rosh Hashanah or making a berachah on a lulav and esrog. Sure, they may have seen it before, perhaps in their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ home, but that was a long time ago and far, far away.

But the Bruks, along with three other Chabad families they brought out here, have changed that. They are serving Jews all over the state, and while the state of Montana may not have changed very much, they are changing the Jews who make Montana their home.

We’ve been talking about making this trip to Bozeman for at least five years, but something always came up that caused us to postpone it. But not this year. We finally made it. And while we are going back to New York, there will always be a piece of Chabad of Montana—and the beautiful Big Sky country—that will be a part of us forever. n


Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.



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