Traveling Rabbis help light new Menorah display at Civic Center


Circuit-riding Rabbi's spreading the faith
By Karen E. Davis For the Great Falls Tribune

In the Old West, circuit-riding preachers served congregations too small or far-flung to support a minister.

This summer, it's two circuit-riding Hasidic students from Brooklyn, N.Y., who plan to spend almost a month in Montana to meet with every Jew they can uncover from Alzada to Yaak.

Chaim Bruck, 22, and Yitzchok Feldman, 25 are both students and followers of the late New York City-based Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, leader of the worldwide Lubavitch Hasidim, a branch of Orthodox Judaism.

In the summer, their Brooklyn Yeshiva, or seminary, sends its rabbinical students to literally every corner of the world "to encourage Jews to be more Jewish."

Bruck and Feldman are tentatively scheduled to be in Great Falls Tuesday through Thursday.

"We are full-service Rabbis," Bruck explained. "We are not just available to this community for this summer visit. If you want to know where to find kosher pastrami, we can help. If you need help with a Bar Mitzvah, we can help."

Bruck and Feldman landed in Billings July 25. By the end of August they say they'll have met with fellow Jews from Yellowstone County to Livingston, Bozeman, Big Sky, Ennis, Butte, Helena, Missoula, Kalispell, Whitefish, Libby, Eureka and Lewistown.

Montana's Jewish community has a pattern — remnants of the pioneer Jewish community in Butte and Helena; out-of-state professionals who mass in university towns such as Missoula or Bozeman; the solitary Jew who lives in Townsend or Libby or Havre.

Chabad usually gives its students two weeks to cover pieces of Montana, Idaho or Wyoming. This year is different: They've allotted almost a month for just Montana. "We spent four days in Bozeman, and we could have spent the whole month there," Bruck said.

Their summer work goes directly back to the post-World War II vision of Rebbe Schneersohn, who would eventually build his group of Brooklyn followers into the largest Jewish-outreach in the world.

"His premise was that not one Jew in the world should feel alone," Bruck added.

According to the Encylclopaedia Judaica, Hasidim is a branch of Judaism dating to 18th century Byelorussia. They are known for their focus on study, joy and mysticism. When Schneersohn became the group's leader in 1950, he started a worldwide network of Chabad Houses in big cities, to encourage Jews to reembrace Orthodoxy.

Chabad's summer work concentrates on locales without permanent Chabad organizations. Montanans must go to Salt Lake City, which has had a Chabad rabbi for years, or Boise, which got it's first one this year.

Hasidic outreach has exploded in the decade since Schneersohn died, he continued. "New outreaches were added this year to Vancouver Island; Helsinki, Finland; Oslo, Norway. I have friends in Angola this summer. We have eight full-time rabbis in Las Vegas and three in China. We have 250 rabbis in Russia."

This week Bruck took a call from a Gentile family in Lewistown interested in converting. "I'll talk to them, but I don't do conversions," he explained. "We're not missionaries. We aren't bringing new information. We go to Jewish people, helping them to be more Jewish."

Bruck joked that "George Bush has his educational 'No child left behind.' Chabad's motto is 'No Jew left behind.'"

Great Falls residents Aaron Weissman and his wife Wendy have already scheduled time with Bruck and Feldman, said Aaron, who is a Board member for local Congregation Aitz Chaim.

He is a fourth generation Montanan and descendant of Butte's pioneer Jewish community, and remembers going to Chabad day camp at Malmstrom almost 30 years ago. "I've been around Chabad-niks my whole life," he said. "It's a wonderful organization. They're enthusiastic, and excited about being Jewish."

If you're Jewish in Montana, "It takes work," Bruck concluded. "You are a minority within a minority. You can coast in New York, eat kosher pastrami, tell yourself that makes you a Jew. "Here, it is a task. You have to do it on your own. We find Jews in Montana very thirsty for their Jewishness."