With a total area of 147,046 square miles, Montana—the fourth-largest state in the country after Alaska, Texas and California—is slightly larger than Japan.
But that doesn’t intimidate Rabbi Chaim Bruk. The co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Montana, he is charged with covering the state—the entire state.
And his latest idea has him in the car and traveling the length and breadth of that state. In mid-May, Bruk started the “Montana Mezuzah Campaign,” geared to make sure that every Jewish home in Montana has a mezuzah.
He and his wife, Chavie, moved to “The Last Best Place” in March 2007. He’s originally from New York; she’s from San Antonio, Texas. They live in Bozeman, in the southwestern part of the state, with their three small children.
Bruk says he thought about such a campaign for a while. “But it’s an expensive venture,” he acknowledges. “I was waiting for the right opportunity.”
Shortly before Passover, his Jerusalem-born grandmother, Chana Bruk, passed away at the age of 90. Wanting to do something in her memory, Bruk broached the idea with a family member, who offered to fund the mezuzah campaign for a year, until her first yahrtzeit.
“It’s a wonderful mitzvah,” says Bruk. “Thus far, we’ve put up over 17 free mezuzahs in seven different cities and currently have 25 applications to receive free mezuzahs. It’s been nonstop.”
The campaign entails offering Jewish residents a free mezuzah for their front door. If they already have one, the rabbi will check to make sure that it’s kosher; if it’s not, he will offer a free replacement. Anyone wanting more can purchase mezuzahs at cost from the rabbi, who says he has already sold nearly 40 (one couple from Bozeman who already had a few mezuzahs in their home added 12 more because of the campaign).
Jennifer Ballenger runs an RV park in Missoula with her mother, Judy Luebeck. Both women had mezuzahs affixed to their front doors by the rabbi.
“People are literally coming out of the woodwork to be part of this,” says Bruk. “People who haven’t responded otherwise to programs or the Yiddishkeit we offer are responding to this.”
He estimates that about 3,000 households in Montana are Jewishly oriented, meaning at least one Jewish person lives there.
Bruk notes that other shluchim have sponsored similar campaigns. His father-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Block of Chabad of South Texas, based in San Antonio, sponsored a summer mezuzah campaign last year that gave free mezuzahs to the first 100 people who signed up for one.
“We took that idea,” says Bruk, “and expanded it,” noting that they have created a Montana Mezzuzah Campaign web site to help spread the word.
Jennifer Ballenger, who co-owns and runs Jim and Mary’s RV Park with her mother in Missoula, Mont., says she got her mezuzah put up by the rabbi at the end of May.
“I always remembered my grandmother had a little brass one hanging on her door” in Seattle, where Ballenger grew up. “That’s what inspired me.”
“I like explaining it to people,” she says. “There’s very little knowledge of Jewish customs, culture, the religion here. They don’t even know what my menorah is; I have it on my mantel all year.”
She says it was nice meeting the rabbi and having him come to the RV park, which she and her mother have managed for 13 years. “It was an awesome experience.” Besides, she adds, “who couldn’t use a little protection?”
Her mother, Judy Luebeck, also had a mezuzah affixed during the same visit, though she was away at the time. “It’s a nice thing. I’ve always wanted one on my door.”
Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Luebeck says it represents a connection to her Jewish family back there. But in the same breath, she notes that “there is nothing like Montana. Missoula is filled with wonderfully friendly people. It’s a caring, caring community.”
Bruk agrees with that sentiment.
“Life is wonderful!” he declares. “This is some of the most gorgeous country in the world. We’re experiencing a true renaissance of Jewish life here, and we’re honored to be part of it.”