Black And Jewish In Rural America

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By Rabbi Chaim Bruk

In 2013, while anticipating the adoption of our third child, we learned that he would be biracial. I was convinced that G‑d sent this beautiful soul to us; yet, I had a few moments of doubt. I was questioning the Al-mighty, whether this child was the right fit for our family; as I couldn’t help but wonder how his life experience would play out as a biracial Orthodox Jew growing up in Big Sky Country. My beloved wife, Chavie, firm and inspirational as ever, encouraged me to remain focused: “Let us shower our baby with love and warmth, and let G‑d worry about his future challenges.”

Growing up in my Brooklyn “hood,” I was living in a bubble. Ohio seemed remote, Texas like another country, and the Mountain West states were, in our minds, like another planet. Our family traveled upstate to Catskill Game Farm, to Pennsylvania’s Sesame Place, and even enjoyed a memorable trip to Orlando, but west of the Mississippi was a like a foreign land to me. Yet, while rural America seemed far, far away from the life I knew in America’s “five boroughs,” I have been blessed to learn that it’s the perfect place to live and raise my family.

In 2007, Chavie and I moved to Bozeman, opening the state’s first branch of Chabad Lubavitch, to offer exciting spiritual experiences to Wild West Jewry. We were welcomed warmly by Jews and gentiles alike and, over the years, have garnered hundreds of friendships with human beings of all flavors. Living in Montana for a decade now, I’ve developed a real appreciation and admiration for “flyover country” and its people.

I have found Montanans to be friendly, thoughtful, and intrigued by my Jewish observance. Whether I’m interacting with a bellman in the “big city” of Billings, a rancher from Kila, or a state trooper in Butte, Montanans are genuinely caring and refreshingly authentic. They care more about their family than what car they drive, feed their animals before themselves, and, no matter how busy they are, would pull over to help you on the side of the road, even if was minus-22 degrees outside.

While I miss the kosher restaurants, the Sabbath atmosphere in the street, and the opportunity to speak in my mother tongue, Yiddish, Bozeman has become home and I’m a proud Montanan. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is not merely a bumper sticker or a campaign slogan out here; it’s a way of life.

Raising my son Menny, for almost four years now, has been an extraordinary blessing and incredible experience. He’s adorable with a one-of-a-kind personality; it’s hard to keep up with his super-fun energy. From his dance moves that could put any hip-hop artist to shame to his one-liners that are so precious, from his carefree attitude while painting the beige carpet in his sister’s room red to his midnight longing for seltzer, he’s a ball of life.

He’s black, wears his yarmulke proudly, and loves praying with me in shul, and our Jewish community, along with our fellow Montanans, embraces him unconditionally. He’s not seen as that “black boy,” and I’m not seen as that “adoptive father”; they just see us as a family.

Personally, I am not color-blind. I do see people’s visible differences, but that doesn’t, G‑d forbid, make me think less of them or contemplate treating them differently. Seeing diversity allows me to appreciate their individuality, their personal story, even more than if I would’ve ignored their uniqueness. Not to recognize people’s exceptionality is to deny them a part of their experience, a part of their core self.

While Montana, like the rest of the world, surely has a few people who are ignorant and judgmental, I am grateful to be raising my family in rural America, where people are welcoming, loving, and open-minded. No, there isn’t much diversity in our backyard, but it’s a place where people take to heart the timeless words of our Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

G‑d bless America.

Rabbi Chaim Bruk is the executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman, Montana.

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