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?

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!

Putting on tefillin with a Jew from New York who now lives in Big Sky, Montana
Putting on tefillin with a Jew from New York who now lives in Big Sky, Montana

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.”

A New Challenge

For the Bruks, the first item on their wish list was fast coming true, but there was no sign that their second wish was going to come to fruition. In fact, two years after they were married, the couple, who dearly longed to build a beautiful Jewish family, were told by the top specialist at a New York fertility clinic that they would never have biological children. Chaim was 26; Chavie was just 23.

Now what?

Chavie: The grim news flipped our whole life on its head. Here you are thinking that you know what you want and what your life is going to look like … and all those things were kind of taken away from us.

But with their characteristic “go-getter” attitude, the Bruks did not allow themselves to wallow in misery. Even before they had left New York, Chavie’s father assured the distraught couple, G‑d has many children out there that want you as parents.”

And if this wasn’t enough, Chaim “just happened” to hear some previously unpublished tapes of the Rebbe in which he urges childless women to consider adoption.

Given this directive, the Bruks worked through their pain and were ready to move on. Adoption wasn’t an option; it was a necessity.

Chavie: I knew I was going to have a family come what may. G‑d was going to give us children, even if we did not birth them ourselves.

The question was: How would they find them?

If moving to Montana had been their first big challenge, adopting children was going to be an even bigger one.

And Then There Were Five!

Every parent of biological children will insist that each child they receive is a miracle. What they do not know is that adoptive parents say the same.

As they began their search for a child, the Bruks soon realized that they had virtually no one to ask for advice. Religious Jewish couples generally have large families of their own, so adoption is not usually an issue.

So the Bruks once again became trailblazers and set out on their own path. In the process, they learned that adoptive babies are hard to find and that even potential adoptions often fail because in the end, the birth mother decides to keep her child.

They were nevertheless prepared to take this risk and relentlessly pursued any suggestion that might lead to parenthood. They captured the enthusiasm of every young couple awaiting their first child and harnessed it to their quest to become adoptive parents. They craved to give, to nurture and to love as only parents can do …

Eventually, their prayers were answered when, a year after their search began, they adopted a 2-month-old girl, Chaya, who had been born in Russia. It was love at first sight.

Chavie: The first time I held her, it felt like it was the most natural thing in the world. I knew at once she was so “right” for us. Overnight, we became full-fledged parents, and the joy was overwhelming.

Holding Chaya at adoption
Holding Chaya at adoption

Ten months later came Zeesy, a newborn from New Jersey.

Next Menny, their biracial baby, whom they named for the Rebbe.

Then Shoshana, who joined the family after coming for a summer camp at the age of 12.

And finally, Chana Laya, named for Chaim’s mother, in 2017.

So now there are five, each with a distinctive past, a unique gene pool and a compelling story that brought them to the Bruks in a manner that was an undeniable demonstration of Divine Providence.

Child-Raising Issues

Like all parents, the Bruks also had their share of child-raising issues, and yet as inexperienced as they were, they have embraced these problems with faith and with love.

Zeesy has a rare metabolic genetic disorder that requires a very specialized medical ketogenic diet and many lifestyle changes.

Shoshana has shown challenging behavior resulting from her traumatic past and has received extensive therapy.

Menny has found it confusing to be the only black Jew in Montana despite the warm welcome he receives and the herculean efforts made by the Bruks to make him feel comfortable in his skin. (The music of the Jewish black rapper, Nissim Black, is a big favorite in their home.)

Notwithstanding their tests (or perhaps because they have so valiantly overcome them), Chavie says their youngsters are “star attractions” in Bozeman. Their upbeat nature and youthful enthusiasm for Judaism has made them “poster children” for the wisdom of Chabad and the beauty of a Jewish lifestyle. Like their parents, they are ambassadors of G‑d.

Additionally, their international roots and racial diversity has proven undeniably that religious Jews are not elitist, narrow-minded and intolerant, and has brought Jews and non-Jews to respect what they stand for.

If this is not enough, the Bruks have been a catalyst for other childless families to follow them throughout the Jewish world. Through writing about their experience online and on social media, as well as giving interviews to Jewish outlets, they have become an example to Jews everywhere. Moreover, every month the Bruks receive multiple calls from others seeking to adopt, and the encouragement they give rarely fails to hit the mark.

Chaim: Infertility is one of the most painful problems a couple can have, but you don’t have to live a life in silence and inner pain, crying whenever you see a baby stroller. Adoption isn’t easy, but for some families, it is the right course. We have facilitated many other families through an adoption process, and we have a lot of joy and pride in that.

Though the Bruks had to deviate from their expected path to building a family, they say they wouldn’t have it any other way. Chavie has come to believe that she didn’t have biological children because adoption was the path she was meant to take.

Chavie: Adoption would never have crossed my mind if I had biological children—not because I’m against it or because I don’t think it’s beautiful, but because it wasn’t on my radar.

Chaim: It’s actually a badge of honor. It’s an honor to be able to take wonderful children who accept us as their parents and we accept them as our beloved children. In fact, if people tell me that they hope one day I’ll have my own children, as they sometimes do, I tell them that Hashem has already blessed my wife and me with our own children, and that we’re very, very grateful.

The Marvel of Montana

Chaim reflects that in his early years in Bozemanbefore he had to be home for his children’s bedtimehe would traverse vast distances far and wide on the icy and often dangerous roads of Montana to make connections with other Jews.

As a result, an increasing number of Montana Jews have started to investigate their heritage, many for the first time.

As the years passed, with Chaim busy with the growing Bozeman community and his own family, it was clear that a greater Chabad presence was called for, and so Chabad centers were subsequently opened in Missoula and Kalispell.

The arrival of Rabbi Schneur and Chana Wolf in Kalispell brought to fruition the prediction Chaim made to his then-unwed sister-in-law Chana years ago, when he told her: “There is a place in Montana for you and your future spouse.”

Shortly after her marriage to Rabbi Shneur Wolf, Chavie’s sister and her new husband began their shlichus in Montana.

Rabbi Schneur and Chana Wolf, shluchim to Kalispell, Montana, with their children.
Rabbi Schneur and Chana Wolf, shluchim to Kalispell, Montana, with their children.

The Chabad Centers of Montana, with Rabbi Chaim as their overall director, enjoy continual growth. Montana itself has enjoyed a population increase as more and more people opt to leave the crowded cities for a more tranquil lifestyle. Additionally, during COVID, many sought refuge far from the overcrowded metropolises and decided to stay.

In the summer of this year, the Bruks opened a fourth Chabad Center in Billings. Billings, the largest city in Montana and the headquarters of many major corporations and universities, has been welcoming Chabad emissaries on an occasional basis for years but now wants a full-time rabbi and rebbetzin.

While the Jewish community might still be smaller than in the gold rush days, Rabbi Chaim Bruk sees great things ahead for Montana’s Jewish community. When recently asked why Montana needs four Chabad rabbis, he laughed and replied: “There’s enough work here for 10!”

Our community at Rabbi Chaim's 40th birthday celebration in December of 2021.
Our community at Rabbi Chaim's 40th birthday celebration in December of 2021.