Rabbi Chaim Bruk has set his sights on making sure each Jewish home in the state has a mezuzah at its entrance – and that those already hanging are kosher.
Montana's only orthodox rabbi sees the project as a way of connecting Jews to their traditions. He says the mezuzot – small parchments of handwritten biblical verses, rolled into cases and fastened to door frames – are a reminder that God is the ultimate home protection in a state where many people believe that such security begins and ends with a gun.
"I'm young. I'm 31. I got a long life ahead of me – God willing – and I hope to get every house," he said.
After his grandmother died shortly before Passover this year at age 90, Bruk wanted to perform a mitzvah – a religious good deed – to honor her memory. So the co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Montana secured funding from a relative to purchase an initial 200 mezuzot to hand out for free.
More than 30 mezuzot in less than five weeks (Photo: AP)
Bruk says he has visited hundreds of Jewish homes in Montana and noticed too often that they either didn't have mezuzot or that those hanging didn't adhere to Jewish law. He says he found text written on paper rather than parchment and cases hanging with no verses inside.
'We're not here to make people Orthodox'
His mission is an ambitious one in a state with more than 147,000 square miles (380,730 square kilometers) and a Jewish population estimated at 1,350 by the 2010 Census. Bruk scoffs at that number, which he believes is actually more than 3,000.
He has put up more than 30 mezuzot in less than five weeks. He is getting the word out by social media, email and his website, www.jewishmontana.com. He also calls those whose homes he knows don't have mezuzot.
That's how Bruk came to install a mezuzah at the home of Jake Matilsky on a Sunday. Matilsky moved to the state from Boston about a year ago and got to know Bruk by occasionally going to the rabbi's Shabbat dinners.
"I got a phone call. 'Jake do you have a mezuzah on your door?' 'No, I don't'. 'Jake, you need a mezuzah on your door.' And here we are today," Matilsky said.
Bruk sped through a blessing while Matilsky pressed the transparent case against his doorway, giving the adhesive time to stick to the wood.
Matilsky completed the brief ceremony by pressing his hand to his mouth and then to the case for the mezuzah's inaugural kiss.
Bruk drew smiles and naysayers when he and his wife, Chavie, moved from New York City to Montana in 2006. His unusual status led to newspaper stories from Jerusalem to New York, where the Post called him "the kosher cowboy."
"It has opened up many doors, because people are just intrigued," he says. "Our motto's been baby steps. We're not here to make people Orthodox. We're here to make people comfortable with their traditional Jewish lifestyle."