Nestled among towering mountains and overlooking a pristine glacial lake, Flathead Valley in northwestern Montana has long attracted lovers of nature and the feeling of wholeness that comes from being surrounded by G‑d’s creations.

The latest people to be drawn to this beautiful but isolated locale are Rabbi Shneur Wolf and his wife, Chana. Together with their infant son, Leib, they are preparing to move to the county seat of Kalispell, where they will found a Chabad center, the third in Montana.

“This has been something I have been dreaming of but never dared expect to see become a reality,” says Gavriel Snyder, who lives with his wife, Devorah, in Kalispell. “Since Rabbi Chaim Bruk first visited as part of the Roving Rabbis program, Chabad has done a wonderful job of drawing Jews out of the woodwork, and I am sure that having our own Chabad couple here in the Flathead Valley will bring that to a whole new level.”

For Chana Wolf, settling in Kalispell is something that she had always known was a possibility but had never seriously considered. She was still in elementary school when her elder sister, Chavie, married Bruk and moved out to Bozeman to found Montana’s first Chabad House.

“The first time I visited my sister, I looked around at the nature, the mountains, and the open spaces, and I felt that this was a special place, a place I would love to call home,” says Chana Wolf, who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where her parents are Chabad emissaries. “My brother-in-law always joked with me that there was a special spot in Montana just waiting for me and my future husband to found a Chabad center of our own.”

Rabbi Wolf with Alan Lerner
Rabbi Wolf with Alan Lerner

Wolf says that she was especially impressed by the people of Montana, who she describes as “open, honest, and very friendly.” Settling in Montana will be something of a homecoming. Dr. Yitzchok Block, longtime professor of philosophy and Chabad emissary in London, Ontario, traveled through the state as part of the Roving Rabbis program in the 1950s. His son, Rabbi Chaim Block, followed suit in the 1970s. Chana Wolf will now be the second of Block’s children to settle in the Big Sky Country.

Welcoming Traditional Jewish Presence

Before the Bruks came to Montana in 2007, Snyder says he and his wife would travel to Calgary, Alberta, to participate in holiday services. When a second Chabad center opened just over 100 miles to the south, in Missoula, their synagogue trips became shorter and more frequent.

Yet, he says, there is a strong need for a traditional presence in the valley. “People call me asking about kosher food, a minyan for Kaddish or a mikvah,” says Snyder, “having our own Chabad center will mean that these amenities will now be available.”

The local Jewish community numbers several hundred households, but their ranks swell significantly during the summer, when snowbirds flock to bucolic mountain lodges and tourists stream in to experience the stark peaks and lush forests of Glacier National Park. Winter brings a flurry of ski aficionados drawn to the sparkling slopes of the big mountain near the town of Whitefish.

Flathead Valley in northwest Montana is a popular vacation spot for visitors from Washington and Canada.
Flathead Valley in northwest Montana is a popular vacation spot for visitors from Washington and Canada.

Stephen Schnall, who has lived full time with his wife, Patty, in the wilderness of Bigfork since 2009, says he is looking forward to discussing Torah topics with the rabbi. “There is a Jewish ruach [spirit] up here,” says the Philadelphia native, who grew up in a Conservative household and keeps kosher despite the logistical challenges. “People want a traditional way to daven and celebrate. We are very excited about what this will mean for our community. There is a core group that is prepared to participate, and more people will join once they get to know how welcoming and inclusive Chabad is to all people.”

While Schnall and others have traveled to Bozeman and Missoula for holidays, some have not been able. Schnall cites the example of a Jewish woman who was not able to leave her animals overnight. Having a Chabad nearby will afford someone like her the opportunity to join in.

Rabbi Bruk says that the Wolfs will begin with a list of several hundred Jewish people and he expects that they will find more once they are on the ground and reaching out. The Wolfs traveled to the area once this past winter to get a feel for the locale, and the two rabbis returned again this summer to look for an appropriate home for the new couple. On that trip, they also brought Jewish books and mezuzot, which they distributed as needed. Last year, the community was in the news when Neo-Nazis scheduled an armed march against the small Jewish community in Whitefish after weeks of anti-Semitic harassment. In response,Chabad launched a campaign to give a Chumash (The Five Books of Moses) to every Jew in the state.

“It’s another dot on the Chabad map with a tremendous future,” marvels Snyder. “It’s not just exciting for us personally, but for the entire community. It cannot happen fast enough.”

Wolf, left, with Whitefish police chief Bill Dial and Rabbi Chaim Bruk
Wolf, left, with Whitefish police chief Bill Dial and Rabbi Chaim Bruk