When Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his wife Chavie Bruk arrived in Montana in 2007, they found a culinary desert, kosher food-wise. “Other than the generic food on the supermarket shelves, it was really difficult to find any kosher food — no frozen items, not a lot of dry goods,” the rabbi said. “It was a challenge.”
So Rabbi Bruk decided to do something about it: He established the state’s first kosher certification program.
The Bruks, members of the Chabad movement, had moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Bozeman, Montana, in hopes of sparking a revival of Jewish culture in the state. This was no small task, given the few Jews living there.
A vibrant Jewish community composed of bankers, merchants and peddlers — in addition to fur trappers and ranchers — along with their families, had settled in the state in the 19th century, drawn by the mining boom. Their numbers — estimated at around 2,500 at the height of their settlement — dwindled over the next hundred-odd years. Now, according to official records, Montana has only 850 Jewish residents among a population of around one million.
Rabbi Bruk believes that the actual number is higher than the official count might suggest — he estimates as many as 2,500 Jewish households in the state. He and his wife have made it their mission to encourage them all to find community and practice their Jewish faith. The Chabad-Lubavitch center that they established in their house now includes a synagogue in their converted garage and a recently opened mikveh.
Determined to show that it was indeed possible to live by the dietary guidelines of kashrut even in Montana, the rabbi and his wife made a point to cook kosher meals for their growing congregation who met at the Chabad House.
Chavie Bruk recalls that their early Shabbat dinners at the Chabad House required some advanced planning and resourcefulness. “We brought a lot of things with us when we first moved, because we knew it would be difficult to find kosher food here. When my husband would go to New York, he would bring chickens back for us. We also had to make substitutions — instead of gefilte fish, I would serve salmon at the dinners, and when we ran out of chicken I would have to be creative. I could always turn to things like boxed pasta which are always around on the grocery store shelves.”
“I grew up in Texas,” she continued. “I was used to having to make an effort to find kosher food. I’ve never lived in a place where you could just go to the store down the block to buy a chicken. I think it was a bigger change for my husband than me.”
In the end, the challenge was as much about living in a small town (population 30,000) as it was about living in Montana.