By: Chaya Baumwolspiner
Chaim Bruk and Chavie Block had two items on their wish list. The first was to teach other Jews about their heritage. The second was to build a beautiful Jewish family of their own.
From the time they married in 2006, they have been tirelessly working toward these goals. It hasn’t always been easy, but Chaim and Chavie have defied all odds to make it happen … and it has!
Chaim: Growing up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., I spent the first 12 years of my life in close proximity to the Rebbe. Before my bar mitzvah, I used to go to the diamond district on Fridays with my friend, who was 13, and help dealers don tefillin.
We also distributed Torah books, gave out shmurah matzah on Passover, and on Purim, we brought mishloach manot.
And that was just the beginning. Vacation time in my teens was devoted to Merkos Shlichut, a summer outreach program, and then, in my early 20s, I made two exhilarating visits to Montana that really “sealed the deal.”
Montana “spoke” to me; the people were friendly and genuine—and they were receptive. The day after my friend and I arrived in Montana, we spoke to a very sick Jewish woman who had found a listening ear in the church. After we stepped in and shared with her about the beauty of Judaism, she eventually returned to our traditions.
There were many other effective interactions on those trips, convincing me that if I was going to be a shliach, Montana was the place to go.
But a shliach needs a shlucha, so first, Chaim had to find a wife. It soon became clear that Chavie Block, the daughter of shluchim in San Antonio, Texas, was his intended match.
Chavie: I had a wonderful childhood in my parents’ busy home, which was totally focused on outreach. I longed for the same lifestyle for myself and was very excited to hear of a fine young man from Brooklyn who shared my dreams. On our second date, he asked me if I would consider moving to Montana (should we marry), and I replied, “Sure,” without missing a beat.
On second thought, where’s Montana?
Texas-raised Chavie was understandably unfamiliar with the state of Montana, a 24-hour drive from San Antonio and home to numerous mountain ranges (including part of the Rocky Mountains) and desolate plains. What she then heard about “Big Sky Country” didn’t help much either. While the gold rush in the 1860s had brought many Jews to the state, the Jews disappeared along with the gold, and the Jewish population was sparse and spread out. With its vast geographical size, small population, rural economy and lack of other Jews, Montana certainly didn’t sound like a good bet to do shlichus work.
And then there was the question of the weather. “It gets really cold on Sukkot (usually in September/October),” says Chavie, “and it stays that way—and colder—until Shavuot (usually around the end of May).”
As her first visit to Montana took place in the summer after she married in 2006, she didn’t exactly know what she was in for. Not that it would have stopped her; like her husband, Chavie was a trailblazer, and Montana sounded like a place that badly needed Chabad.
Chavie: Even family and friends didn’t give us encouragement. They told us to go instead to a place where there are more Jews and warmer weather.
I think this only hardened our resolve to bring G‑d to Montana.
Chaim: We were never deterred by the knowledge that Montana has only a few thousand Jews living across an area as large as Germany. We knew that it is our obligation to serve every Jew. A Jew in a rural area deserves to learn about his heritage just like a Jew in a larger city.
In order for that to happen, the Bruks moved to Bozeman in the southwestern part of the state at the beginning of 2007. It was a remote location with a small Jewish population with no amenities.
If Chaim and Chavie wanted to bring authentic Judaism to Montana, then they would have to start from scratch.
On Our Own
From the time they arrived, the Bruks were ready to take on their task. On his earlier trips to Montana, Chaim had already discerned that the Jews there were open to learning and simply didn’t know very much about their heritage.
He couldn’t have been more right! When the young couple knocked on the doors of Bozeman Jews, they didn’t hesitate to let them in. They understood that if the Bruks moved so far away from friends and family to come to Montana to teach them about Judaism, the least they could do was to hear them out.
The second week brought Torah classes on Shabbat mornings accompanied by coffee and cake, with some locals invited for the Shabbat meals. Within a short time, the Bruks were being asked for regular Shabbat services, too.
Life was busy and fulfilling. People immediately took to the Bruks. They also liked Chavie’s food and the warm ambiance in their home. As there was no kosher food in the stores (“except for Cheerios,” jokes Chaim), everything they needed had to be brought in from Minneapolis every three to four months. Kosher caterers and restaurants were unheard of.
Chavie was unfazed. As the daughter of shluchim, she’s been cooking for a crowd since she was young and can serve as many as 50 guests on Shabbat in stride. “It’s more than a matter of food,” she acknowledges. “I get so much satisfaction from making meals that bring Shabbat into people’s lives.”
The Bruks soon became an integral part of the Bozeman scene. In their second year, their new friends begged them to organize full services for Yom Kippur. Chaim was their rabbi, and they needed him!
Within the next few years, the Bruks built a local mikvah, held classes and services and ordered kosher food for those who requested it.
The effect on Bozeman has been life-changing. While some were content to learn the “basics,” others have taken their Jewish studies even further. Dr. Michael (Mick) Lifson, who moved from the East Coast to Bozeman about the same time as the Bruks, was not a typically “observant” Jew, but he did eat kosher meat. When he asked the rabbi where he could obtain a kosher chicken, he was amazed by the warm and welcoming reply.
As a result of that chicken, the doctor and his wife, Holly, joined the Bruks for a Shabbat meal and were won over.
At their own pace (a factor they said they deeply appreciated), the Lifsons grew to observe more and more mitzvot, and are now mainstays of the Bozeman community. The two couples are such close friends that Chavie describes them as “family.”