Raizy Mendelsohn took one woman who needed to be immersed in a mikve (Jewish
ritual bath) to a local stream. But a large bison refused to budge and a
trumpeter goose scared away her friend with its loud honk.
Mendelsohn took another friend to immerse in the frigid Snake River on a cold
wintry day, the woman’s boot drifted down the river and Mendelsohn gave the
freezing woman her own boot and walked with just a sock on her own foot for 20
minutes back to her car.
These incidents are just a day’s work for
Mendelsohn, who codirects the Chabad of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with her husband,
Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn. Jackson Hole is far from the thriving Jewish
communities in Toronto and Ramat Beit Shemesh where she was born and grew
There is no regular morning prayer service during the week and
sometimes not even on Shabbat, except during the busy summer tourist season. The
closest actual mikvaot are in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Bozeman, Montana, which
are both five hours away in the few months when there is no snow and up to 10
hours during blizzards.
But Mendelsohn has no complaints. Raising three
smiley daughters aged five and under and with another child on the way, she is
the picture of contentment living in a place where a moose moving into her front
yard is par for the course.
“If you’re in the middle of nowhere, it
doesn’t matter if you’re in the North or South,” Mendelsohn says, in an
interview in her living room. “This is an opportunity to reach out to people. In
life, everyone has challenges. At least I knew going in what mine would
The Mendelsohns are one of four families who cover enormous swaths
of territory in America’s mountain time zone for Chabad, along with Mendel and
Esther Lifshitz in Idaho, Chaim and Chavie Bruk in Montana and Benny and
Sharonne Zippel in Salt Lake City, Utah. Together they are in charge of the
small Jewish communities in what – thanks to a hit song by country singer Jason
Aldean – have become known as “fly-over states.”
While South Florida,
where Zalman was raised has Chabad houses every few blocks, he is the only
full-time, resident rabbi in the state of Wyoming. He started visiting Wyoming
regularly as a teacher at Chabad’s rabbinical college in Morristown, New
As a rabbinical student, Mendelsohn visited Nepal, Beijing,
Singapore, and Bali in Asia. But in 2007 he asked for and received a lifetime
appointment by Chabad to make his home in Jackson Hole, an old western town with
a ski resort in a national park.
Mendelsohn estimates that the town has
“500 Jewish souls,” the overwhelming majority of whom are intermarried. He also
services some 40,000 Jewish tourists a year who visit, including hundreds of
There is no synagogue yet in Jackson Hole, but Mendelsohn
is receiving donations and he believes it will soon become a
Meanwhile, he conducts Shabbat services at his home in the
winter and a hotel in the summer and always has many guests at his table on
There are synagogues without rabbis in even smaller Jewish
communities in Cheyenne, Casper, and Laramie, Wyoming, the latter of which has a
small Hillel Jewish student center at the University of
Mendelsohn visits each city four or five times a year,
officiating at weddings and funerals and helping Jews observe Passover, Hanukka
and other holidays.
“We are here to serve every single Jew with our
hearts and souls, doing whatever it takes,” he says. “We know we are on the
It’s not easy here. But if we survive and thrive, the rest
of the world will say that if they can have a growing and vibrant Jewish
community in Wyoming, there is no excuse to not have one where they
Mendelsohn describes his goals as both mundane – “just helping a
Jew do another mitzva today” – and lofty – “making the world a better place.”
His surroundings in the mighty Teton mountain range on the edge of Yellowstone
Park create a special environment for both mundane and lofty aims.
Tetons are the most dramatic mountains in the Rocky range,” he says. “The
mountains unearth the soul, and we feed it Judaism.
Seeing me here has
the same shock value as finding Chabad in Nepal.
The last thing people
expect to see in a cowboy town is a rabbi with a beard.”
Raizy adds that
“when people are far away and in nature, they are more open, relaxed and
receptive. The people look at the mountains and say there is a God in this
Like the Mendelsohns, the six Lifshitz children go to school on
the Internet with peers around the world, thanks to a unique online education
system run by Chabad. There are twice as many Jews in Boise as Jackson Hole, but
no Jewish life, except for the store-front Chabad and a 100-year-old
Reform/Conservative temple that prides itself as the oldest continuously used
synagogue west of the Mississippi.
After meeting in New York,
Brooklyn-born Mendel and South African Esther married and moved to Boise in
2004. Mendel did Jewish outreach before that in more than 30 countries as a
rabbinical student. He served for three years as assistant rabbi at The Shul of
Bal Harbour in Miami, the largest Chabad outreach synagogue in the
The Lifshitzes recently had a speaker from Israel who attracted
more people to their synagogue than on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. Passover and
Purim are more popular, but the biggest Jewish holiday in Boise is Hanukka, when
Mendel says “the Jewish side of intermarried families feels competition and
One disadvantage to the Lifshitzes’ efforts to build up a
Jewish community in Boise is that when families become more religiously
observant, they move to cities with Jewish schools and kosher restaurants. But
the rabbi, who was raised in Cincinnati, says there are Jews who would be lost
in a city saturated with Jewish life but receive full attention in such a small
“In Idaho there are very few Jews, but someone has to be here
on the ship to look after the stragglers,” he says in an interview in his
“This is the real work in the trenches. If it weren’t
for us, they wouldn’t think about their Judaism or Israel. The people here
reignited their Judaism through us. The Talmud teaches us that if you save one
neshama [soul], you save the world. Here you see it, and when you see it, you
appreciate what it really is.”
Part of leading small Jewish communities
is relating to their Jewish brothers and sisters and setting an example for
them. To that end, Chavie Bruk goes skiing in a skirt and takes her two toddler
daughters Chaya and Zeesy to yoga, ballet, and gymnastics, while her husband
Chaim goes hiking and rafting with men from their community.
go back to a big city unless I’m forced to,” says Chaim, who was born and raised
in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. “When you live in the boondocks, you
need to know what you believe, enhance your experience, and – being that
everyone is looking at you – you have to live to a higher standard.”
outspoken Bruk downplays perceived difficulties in living in Bozeman, Montana.
He says trucks come monthly from Minneapolis to deliver him meat and any kind of
kosher food he wants, which he stores in his seven – yes seven –
“There is nothing you have in Jerusalem that I don’t have in
Bozeman except for fresh sushi,” he says in an interview in his kitchen. “Is it
easier to live in New York or LA? You bet. What I would do for a roll of kosher
sushi is indescribable. But getting a minyan in Bozeman means a lot more than it
does in Brooklyn.”
Chaim boasts that he was raised at the feet of the
Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He spent several years leading
community outreach in Russia, Canada and Israel. Chavie is the daughter of the
Chabad rabbi of San Antonio, Texas, and also did outreach to Jews across the US
and around the world.
When Chaim spent two summers in Montana as a
yeshiva student, he built up relationships with local Jews, and when he saw that
the Jewish population in Bozeman was growing, he received a blessing from Chabad
headquarters in New York in 2007 to buy a house and set up shop
“It was high time to bring the real deal of Yiddishkeit to
Montana,” he says. “Both of us knew we wanted to live our lives sharing
Yiddishkeit with others, and there is no place more rewarding to do that than in
Montana, where there is no other source of traditional Judaism.”
does have small Reform synagogues all over the state, including in Bozeman,
whose members Bruk says he services in ways only Chabad can
While he says he gets along with the Reform temples, he adds
“that doesn’t mean they get along with me.”
“I wish all the Jews would
have been educated by the [Lubavitcher] rebbe so they would love each Jew with a
non-judgmental approach,” he says. “If secularist Jews loved religious Jews the
way Chabadniks love secular Jews, the world would be a better place.
here to offer people something wonderful at their own pace whenever they are
ready to quench their Jewish thirst.”
There is a minyan at the Bruks’
home almost every Shabbat morning and weekday services when people have a
yahrzeit, anniversary of a loved one’s death, or a special occasion. But Chaim
says praying with a quorum was not nearly as satisfying as praying with a man in
his seventies who recently put on tefillin for the first time, three weeks
before he died.
The Bruks believe there are approximately 5,000 Jews in
Montana, spread out over a state that is the US’s fourth largest and is almost
as big as California, which has dozens of Chabads. They chose to focus on
Bozeman, because it is the state’s fastest growing and most centralized city,
but they also service other cities and held seven events with close to 400
people around the state during Hanukka.
After building a state-of-the-art
mikve in their home and inaugurating two Torah scrolls, the Bruks are now
raising funds to build what they are billing as Montana’s first and only Jewish
Community Center, which will be their synagogue. Meanwhile, he endures jokes
from his Chabad rabbi colleagues when they get together for their annual
convention in Crown Heights.
“I can handle their moose jokes, and if they
saw the mountains of Montana, they would have a different opinion,” he
“Hashem (God) obviously guided us in the right direction. We see
every day that we made the right decision. It’s more challenging but so much
more rewarding. It is much more satisfying to deal with a challenge and overcome
the obstacles, and here we have our share of obstacles.”
The Zippels are
considered pioneers by the Bruk, Lifshitz and Mendelsohn families.
have been in Utah for more than 20 years, at first serving all four states from
Salt Lake City before mentoring the younger families when they came.
first reaction when I was told to come here was ‘what is Utah?’” Benny says, in
an interview at his home. “I’m Italian, and my wife is Canadian. We had no idea
what continent Utah was on.
They told me it’s a very nice place in
America close to the West Coast that was totally unserved, so we
Besides their synagogue, the Zippels main endeavor is Project
HEART, which stands for Hebrew Education for At-Risk Teens.
they arrived in Utah, the Zippels received a call from a Jewish parent in
California, who told them about his son who was sent to a treatment center for
troubled teens in Utah. They met more and more Jewish teens at such centers,
which have grown in Utah because the local legislature does not require a
child’s consent to be sent there.
Over the years, the Zippels have worked
with hundreds of Jewish teens from all over the world and all different
backgrounds who suffered from drug addiction, depression and eating disorders
and whom conventional education gave up on. They talk to the kids about their
lives, Judaism and its role in their recovery.
Rabbi Zippel holds weekly
discussions with as many as 200 teens on the weekly Torah portion, the Jewish
mystical perspective on current events, and what Judaism says about anger
management. He also attempts to reconcile the teens’ strained relationships with
their parents via a nonjudgmental, all-accepting approach.
The Salt Lake
City Chabad has services on weekends at its large synagogue and regularly brings
in kosher food from California.
The Zippels have raised six children in
Utah, all but one of whom have already left town, starting in high
“The only time I felt it was a sacrifice to live here was when I
sent my first kid away to school,” Sharonne Zippel says. “I remember saying
‘just because we live in a Godforsaken place, why do our kids have to suffer?’
But my husband said ‘they aren’t suffering. It’s what the rebbe wanted.’” At
first Zippel went to workshops on home schooling at the annual Chabad women’s
convention. Now she teaches the workshops and mentors young peers in isolated
“They are going through what we went through,” she says. “People
are concerned that my kids don’t have a social scene. But there are constantly
guests at our table from the community, they have friends from the online
school, and the people at the shul have become like family for all of us.”