Rural Judaism – going back to Sinai

Three hundred years ago, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of hassidism, taught that God can and should be found in nature, and today people are pursuing precisely that.

THE KISHON RIVER flows past Mount Carmel into Haifa Bay (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE KISHON RIVER flows past Mount Carmel into Haifa Bay
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It was early morning on March 18, 2014, and I was having coffee with legendary entrepreneur Lewis Katz in his penthouse overlooking New York City. Katz had reached out to me during a Montana visit, and I was now asking for his support to build Montana’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning. He looked me straight in the eyes, and with a healthy dose of authoritative love, he said, “Chaim, what in the world are you doing in Montana? I mean, I’ll get you a gig here in the city, there are one thousand times more Jews, and more excitement... any good businessman knows that if a better opportunity comes along, you grab it.”
I attempted, unsuccessfully, to convey to him that in our heart of hearts, my wife Chavie and I believe in our life’s mission of sharing authentic Judaism with Montanans of all backgrounds, Jew or gentile.
It’s no secret that Judaism was founded in the ownerless, rural Sinai desert. Today, Jews are heading back to their roots.
While the coasts and a few enclaves in between are undoubtedly home to the largest populations of active Jews in this country, many a Landsman is moving to rural America. Whether for quality of life, love for the majestic outdoors or annoyance with traffic, pollution and crime, Jews, like so many others, are settling in “fly-over country.”
Bend, Oregon, Fort Collins, Colorado or my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, once considered “the boondocks” to the Jew of Pikesville or Los Angeles, are today appealing to those yearning for a more tranquil life.
Three hundred years ago, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of hassidism, taught that God can and should be found in nature, and today people are pursuing precisely that.
While Bozeman doesn’t have a minyan (prayer quorum) on demand every 30 minutes, our slopes do enjoy fresh powder almost every morning. We are just a short drive from Old Faithful and our historic main street is elegant and fun.
It’s 2016 and the 21st century Jew may not be searching for a shul, rabbi or mikveh, so we must search for them.
The Jewish establishment must remember that if Moses had waited for the Jews to seek out a leader, we’d still be in Egypt. If Judah the Maccabee had wasted his time on studying the latest Pew Poll, our defense of spiritual freedom against the oppressive secular Syrian Greeks would have failed. We can’t afford to wait for the Jew to ask for Passover matzah, we can’t expect them to know how to light their Hanukka menorah or assume they’re building a succa; we must bring these beautiful Jewish opportunities to them.
A great sage once asked: “Why is the Hanukka story special? Why was finding a single cruse of pure oil such a big deal? Wasn’t it likely that the Syrian Greeks would’ve overlooked one?” And he cleverly answered: “The miracle wasn’t finding the oil, it was the fact that they searched for it.”
Likewise, whether officiating at a funeral in Great Falls, a circumcision up in the Flathead Valley or enjoying a bit of Yiddish talk over a “l’chaim” with a Jewish senior in Columbus, our mission is to ensure that Jews – and all those seeking the Torah’s teachings – in Big Sky Country are given a chance to grow spiritually.
We are currently in the midst of a major capital campaign to build a new Jewish community center in Bozeman, no small task for a population our size. When I share with potential donors that, despite their preconceptions, Jewish life is on the rise in Montana and the one-room synagogue in our home can no longer host the crowds seeking to attend, they are astonished. Yet, the math is simple: the soul naturally desires nourishment; it’s gasping for the spiritual oxygen found in tradition. We did not create the interest in Moses’ five books, we’re just responding to it.
Isaiah prophesizes: “You will be gathered up one by one.” The ultimate unity of any family is when no one is forgotten, not even a son or daughter who moved to the “hinterlands.” It isn’t about clergy salary or how many weddings one can officiate at annually, it’s about the connectedness of a people which is measured only qualitatively.
I am a student of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of blessed memory (1902-1994) and he taught me that it’s not about membership numbers or mega galas, it is always – but always – about the individual.
Jewish inspiration will always be plentiful in Brooklyn, Palm Beach and West Rogers Park; there are plenty of rabbis, teachers and organizations readily available to service those illustrious communities. Judaism in 2016 is desperate for pioneers that are ready to “go rogue” and bring our vital traditions to those thirsting for it in Casper, Wyoming, Lawton, Oklahoma and McAllen, Texas.
One by one.
The author serves as executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman.