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.
Chaim Bruk approached the local Albertson’s supermarket, suggesting that stocking frozen chicken and some other kosher items might be a good idea, and the store eventually installed a kosher freezer with a variety of products. The local Safeway also began to sell some staples.
The Bruks also began to place community food orders with The Kosher Spot, a company out of Minnesota, which makes deliveries to Montana every few months to supply 15 to 20 families in the area who take part in the program.
“You should see us on Saturday nights after Shabbos,” said Rabbi Bruk. “It looks like a shady operation. A bunch of cars pull up next to a semi parked at the truck stop outside Bozeman and transfer a pallet’s worth of boxes into our cars, then drive away. But it’s really only brisket and gefilte fish.”
“We just added a stop at Missoula; the rabbi there has to meet the truck at around 2 a.m. I wonder what people think he’s doing.”
But it was the launch of the Va’ad Hakashrus certification agency in 2010 that has had the greatest impact on the community.
“Up until 2010, food companies in Montana interested in getting into the kosher food business would have to use mostly East Coast-based certification agencies to supervise their operations, which added to the costs exponentially. Having someone local who can provide a personal touch was important to a lot of business owners.”
Bruk started his venture with one client, and now has six or seven companies who rely on his advice. These range from Wheat Montana, a family-run wheat farm and mill that manufactures flours and baked products, to Tipu’s Chai, an enterprise established by the owner of a local Indian restaurant which now sells its tea blends to Whole Foods and other stores. Another client, Blue Marble Biomaterials, manufactures chemicals that are used for food manufacturing by other companies.
To receive Bruk’s stamp of approval, the manufacturer’s chain of production has to be inspected from field to product to determine that nothing has come into contact with the ingredients or the machinery that would compromise their kosher status. That means riding the threshers in the wheat fields when necessary, among other things.
“There are always things that you don’t expect — for example, some of the machines that are used by a food company may have been used in a totally different industry before. A paint mixer might now be used for mixing dough, for example. So you have to go through the whole history of every machine to see what is required for koshering.”
Making equipment suitable for kosher food production might involve anything from cleaning utensils in boiling water to using blowtorches in order to harness the power of fire to purify them.
Bruk also works with some of the larger certification agencies from all over the world to supervise clients in Montana on their behalf. “We’ve worked with programs from as far away as Manchester, England,” he said.
While he learned many of the skills involved in koshering kitchens as a rabbinical student, he still relies on a trusted group of senior rabbis to answer his questions about his clients’ particular situations. “When you’re a student, you’re asked to kosher a hotel kitchen for a bar mitzvah, or help your mother by koshering her kitchen for Passover,” said the rabbi. “But each kitchen is different, especially industrial sites. You need to know enough so you don’t burn them down or bust them up!”
“Most of our clients aren’t Jewish,” he said. “The decision to go kosher for them is primarily a financial one. It takes a significant investment to go kosher — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. But the certification also means that they have a whole new market for their products.”
The kosher food industry is large and growing. Upwards of $12.5 billion of kosher goods are sold in the U.S. each year, and only a relatively small number of consumers who buy kosher products actually follow Jewish dietary laws on a regular basis; the rest are drawn by health and safety concerns, the belief that kosher food tastes better or is of higher quality, or because of other dietary restrictions such as those of halal or veganism.
While Bruk is enthusiastic about the viability of going kosher for the many food producers in the region, he’s also a realist. “A gentile cattle farmer from Idaho contacted me recently to inquire about setting up a grass-fed, organic, kosher beef business,” he said. “Ultimately, it will come down to cost for him.”
There are no kosher meat producers in Montana, despite the fact that, as the rabbi points out, cattle outnumber people in the state by quite a wide margin. “The reality is that you’d have to ship the meat across the country to the marketplace. That’s financially unrealistic. Unless you have a particularly committed investor, from a purely business point of view it makes more sense to do it somewhere closer to the coasts — Colorado or Kansas, for example.”
A relatively small proportion of his clients’ production is sold to Jews in the state — much is sent to other states or abroad instead. However, the kosher certification endeavor has had a striking effect on the local Jewish community here in other ways.
As the community around Chabad House has grown from about two or three regulars at Friday night services to 30 or 40 (up to 150 during the High Holy Days), so has the interest in keeping kosher, or at least in buying kosher products.
“It created an awareness — a shift in peoples’ minds. It made them start to think that keeping kosher in Montana was possible,” Bruk said. “It may cost a little more to buy kosher foods, and it may take some effort, but it’s possible.”
While most Montana residents may never give a thought to kosher food, its availability came briefly into public consciousness thanks to a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Shelly Tischler, an inmate in one of Montana’s state prisons, claiming that she was not being provided with kosher food as per the dictates of her religion.
When asked about the case, Bruk answered with just a hint of wryness in his voice. “I’m involved with visitation and care of Jewish inmates in the state, and I’ve been asked by the Department of Corrections to consult in a number of instances where inmates are asking for access to kosher foods. In my experience, most of the inmates who file lawsuits immediately are not even actually Jewish, or perhaps their goal isn’t first and foremost being able to eat kosher.”
“The Aleph Institute — a Florida-based organization that works tirelessly to help Jewish prisoners — has had great success with ensuring people receive reasonable accommodations for their faith. Deer Lodge prison, the largest in the state, does provide kosher food. And I personally have found the DOC to be very responsive, and willing to work out whatever they can. Sometimes it takes a bit of time, but they do it.”
The kosher certification program is one of a number of efforts by the Bruks to reignite the Jewish community in Montana. Rabbi Bruk travels around the state to offer Jewish education classes in Helena and Great Falls, in addition to the ones he runs in Bozeman. The couple spearheaded a program that provided free mezuzahs to anyone who requested them to mark their thresholds. They also recently opened a mikveh, housed in an addition to their house, allowing residents and visitors to take ritual baths.
When asked about his use of “we” when describing his work on the kosher certification program, Bruk explained his seemingly endless energy and ability to get so much done.
“The kosher certification operation is pretty much a one man band, but none of my work in Montana would be possible without the support and partnership I have with my wife. We’re a team. We do everything together, so I may be the one who actually travels to the plant, but someone has to be here to take care of the kids or answer the phones at the Chabad house while I’m on the road. There’s definitely a partnership and none of this work would be possible without us working as a team.”
“We’re staunch hasidic feminists,” he said with a laugh. “Not exactly like the average feminists, but we recognize without a doubt that nothing about the Chabad house is about a single individual. We came out here together for a month in 2006, decided on Montana as the place we’d have our lifelong mission — we opened the shul, the synagogue, we adopted three children. Nothing about our lives are separate from each other. That’s the only thing that makes it possible. To successfully create a renaissance of Jewish life in a place like Montana — one man can’t do it, one woman can’t do it. But two people working as a unit can do it.”
Aruna D’Souza writes about food at Kitchen Flânerie and is the editorial director at RiffleBooks.com