Stocked full of kosher meat products from Iowa, an 18-wheeler lumbers across South Dakota en route to Seattle, lurching to a brief stop along Interstate 90 in central Montana. Under snow-capped mountains in Bozeman, a lone, sheitel-wearing redhead drives to a rest area on the highway, waiting for the semi to appear. When it does, she unloads what in Big Sky country is precious cargo — the kosher-certified meat and chicken that helps sustain the handful of observant Jews in this picturesque college town.
Chavie Bruk, 23, moved with her husband to Montana 10 months ago to become the first Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim (emissaries) in the state. The chasidic movement sends young men and women all over the world to make Jewish learning and traditions more accessible — even in the middle of sparsely populated Montana.
“I think people have a misconception that there are no people [in Montana],” Bruk said. “There is civilization.” Such as the kosher food, which comes every other month via an arrangement with an Iowa kosher meat plant and helps fight off some of the cultural isolation emissaries can sometimes feel.
Last Sunday, Bruk came east to join more than 2,000 female emissaries gathered at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott to mark their final evening together in the five-day annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchos. Honoring the 20-year yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, the wife of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the women discussed leadership skills, perfected outreach methods and studied Torah.
“It is to inspire and re-energize all the women who came here,” said Pearl Krasnjansky, shlucha to Hawaii. “Before the word multitasking was popular, this is what Chabad women have been doing for decades.”
On Monday, the representatives went their separate ways, to bring refurbished skills and revived spirits across the globe — from Hawaii to Siberia to Montana.
Originally from San Antonio, Chavie Bruk moved to Brooklyn after her wedding and taught elementary school there for a year. Her husband had previously spent a few years in Montana and when he took her there to visit, Bruk fell in love with the sprawling mountains and easygoing culture.
“You don’t go there and just see farms,” she said. “There’s life out there — it’s small, but it’s happening.”
Since moving to Bozeman, Bruk and her husband have trekked through Yellowstone National Park and have begun to take up local sports, including horseback riding and fishing.
“I’m proud to say I’m learning to ski,” Bruk said. “We’re learning to adapt as much as we can. We’re trying to get in the groove of Montana.”
There are approximately 1,500 Jewish families in Montana, of which about 400-500 live in the Bozeman area. The one synagogue in town — a Reform congregation, Beth Shalom — has only a part-time rabbi, and the Bruks provide residents and visitors with more traditional Jewish learning opportunities.
“They have wonderful spiritual gatherings,” said Holly Lifson, a Jewish resident of Bozeman. “They really unite the more observant community in celebrating the holidays.”
The Bruks’ Chabad House offers religious classes every Saturday and Wednesday nights, as well as monthly women’s group meetings. In addition to providing services to community members, the couple also encourages Jewish students at nearby Montana State University to spend Shabbat with them.
Each month, Bruk’s husband travels around the state to visit Montana’s sparsely scattered Jewish communities, offering sporadic night classes and selling Jewish books. Back in Bozeman, Bruk organizes regular holiday parties for the community, including the most recent event on Chanukah, which featured a nine-foot menorah on Main Street.
“The Reform synagogue was the only synagogue in town for eight years,” Lifson said. “This year, the Chabad Chanukah celebration was attended by more people than the Reform [one].”
With the neighboring Chabad couple in Utah, the Bruks are leading a joint community trip in mid-February to Israel, allowing residents to delve firsthand into their Jewish roots.
“We are actually in the process of raising funds and building the first mikveh in Montana,” Bruk said. “Within seven or eight hours all around us, that’ll be the only one.”
At the end of April, another Chabad couple will be heading to Big Sky country, and they’ll likely be making use of the same kosher food-bearing truck that rolls through Bozeman.
Following Bruk’s lead, Raizy Mendelsohn, 21, her husband and infant daughter will move to Wyoming in the spring, establishing the first Chabad House in the state. (Only the Dakotas and Mississippi don’t have Chabad emissaries, though those states are visited by neighboring shluchim.)
After spending the past two years running a special-needs Chabad center in Queens, Mendelsohn is ready to pioneer the Midwest as a young shlucha.
She and her husband have already rented a home in East Jackson, Wyo., on the Snow King Resort and near an entrance to Yellowstone. In town, Mendelsohn will find whitewater rafting, horseback riding and mountain climbing.
“The city we’re moving to is not a Wild West city at all — it’s a tourist resort,” Mendelsohn said, chuckling.
She plan to reach out to Jewish travelers. According to Mendelsohn, there are roughly three million tourists in summer, and approximately 35,000 of those people are Jewish. There are only about 500 permanent Jewish residents in the area, she said.
But Mendelsohn doesn’t feel alone.
“Maybe once I get there I’ll more have to deal with reality,” she said. “Right now it’s exciting — I’m standing together with another 3,500 women who have done the same thing.”
After meeting the local residents and tourists in April, Mendelsohn and her husband will devise their exact plans based on community needs. For now, they intend to hold Shabbat minyans and meals, monthly women’s circles and a “Mommy and Me” program for children. And even in the middle of Wyoming, all of their meat will be kosher, thanks to the very same 18-wheeler that serves the Bruks in Montana.
“If we can’t bring a truck in on our own, then we’ll send orders to Chavie’s and pick them up from there,” she said.