The Rabbi Goes West – Yes, there are Jews in Montana

THE RABBI GOES WEST (Courtesy of Big Sleep Films)

While staying in place, a great deal of my current life is on the internet, and, somehow this is extending my awareness.  Recently, I learned about the Oxford ( Mississippi) Film Festival.  Then I had the opportunity to see a movie – “The Rabbi Goes West” to Montana and so I learned, there are Jews in Montana, and much more.  My introduction to the movie was the Q&A session following the movie that I missed the first time around. Gerald Peary and Amy Geller spoke about their documentary about a Chabad Hasidic rabbi who moved from Brooklyn to Montana to bring his Chabad brand of Judaism to the American west.  His mission – to place a mezuzah, an encased prayer offering, on the doorpost of every Montana Jew. That’s less than 2,000 families spread across a state fourteen times larger than Israel.

The Rabbi Goes West, placing a Mezuzah

How is it that Co-Directors, Gerald Peary and Amy Geller undertook on this unusual  exploration? In their words, “We are secular Jews, based in the Boston area, who are culturally Jewish. We are crazy about the humor of Jewish comedians, and savor Jewish food. We’ve traveled in Israel, and we’ve shown a previous film we made at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. But we’ve been far less in touch with the religious and spiritual aspects of Judaism.

For this last reason, we decided to make our latest documentary, THE RABBI GOES WEST, following someone strongly religious, and deeply committed to the Jewish faith. The central character of our film is Chaim Bruk, a young, charismatic Chabad Hasidic rabbi who, ten years ago, moved from Brooklyn to Bozeman, Montana, to bring his brand of Judaism to the American West.

We learned about Rabbi Chaim on the Internet and were particularly intrigued by his vow to put a Kosher mezuzah on the home of every Jew in an unlikely place like Montana. There are less than 2,000 Jews in a state 14 times larger than Israel. We are proud to declare our Judaism by displaying a mezuzah on our front door. And we were drawn to Rabbi Chaim mission to encourage those who are Jewish to become more conscious of their Judaism.

The Bruk Family

In the summer of 2016, we started filming with Chaim and his family and discovered, to our surprise, that some Montana Jews, including other rabbis whom we interviewed–Reform, Conservative–viewed Rabbi Chaim’s Mezuzah campaign with suspicion. They saw it as an attempt to get into people’s houses and push his form of Chabad Judaism. Were they correct?

At the time, we knew little of Chabad or of Hasidism. Three years later, thanks to our experiences in Montana and our research, we know a lot more.

We realize that many Jews like us, non-Orthodox, have many misconceptions about what Chabad is really about. With Chaim in Montana as the example, our film illuminates how Chabad actually operates in a small Jewish community, both good and bad.

There are aspects of Chabad which we believe are admirable, and others, frankly, which make us uncomfortable.”

Amy Geller and Gerald Peary, Directors

And how was I  impacted by this film?  My experience with Chabad is in an area that is vibrantly Jewish with many opportunities of all kinds.

Looking at the Jewish community in Montana was a very different and fascinating experience.  I find the film fascinating.  It would have come into its own more had I been able to see it on the big screen.  Interestingly, although the gorgeous landscape shots were diminished, the interaction with the interviewees was heightened, intriguing and compelling.  The film is well edited and carefully balance.

The Rabbi Goes West poster

For me, it opened a door to a Jewish world very different than others I have observed.  This feature-length documentary about Chaim Bruk, a young, charismatic Chabad Hasidic rabbi who moved from Brooklyn, NY to Bozeman, Montana, bringing his Chabad brand of missionary Judaism to the American west. It was somewhat surprising to me to realize  that the Jewish community there was such that Chaim experienced resistance from other rabbis, Reform and Conservative, and also Neo-Nazis threatening the Montana Jewish community. Meeting the Bruk family, his wife and adopted children was enriching.  The role of this enthusiastic and energetic rabbi in “the wild West” took on a quality very different than a role of a similar rabbi in say, Skokie, Illinois.  This is a very worthwhile film and can be seen. Check this website

Photos are courtesy of The Rabbi Goes West unless otherwise noted.

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