HELENA, Mont. — Montana's small Jewish population is scattered across a huge state that has more rodeos than rabbis, but one man is logging thousands of miles to seek out the faithful one doorway at a time.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk has set his sights on making sure each Jewish home in Montana 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 mezuzahs — small parchments of handwritten biblical verses, rolled into roughly 4-inch 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 says. "Montana should be the most protected state in the union. Not only because of our weapons but because of our mezuzahs. We'll be protected by the Second Amendment and by the mezuzahs."
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 mezuzahs to hand out for free.
Bruk says he has visited hundreds of Jewish homes in Montana and noticed too often that they either didn't have mezuzahs 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.
His mission is an ambitious one in a state with more than 147,000 square miles 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 mezuzahs in less than five weeks, traveling from Whitefish near Glacier National Park to Dillon in the southwestern part of the state. He has enlisted the help of two rabbinical students who are traveling in central and northeastern Montana.
Bruk is getting the word out by social media, email blasts and his website, jewishmontana.com. He also calls those whose homes he knows don't have mezuzahs.
That's how Bruk came to install a mezuzah at the home of Jake Matilsky on Sunday. Matilsky moved to Helena from Boston about a year ago and got to know Bruk by occasionally going to the rabbi's Shabbat dinners in Bozeman.
"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 Sunday.
Bruk sped through a blessing while Matilsky pressed the 4-inch 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.
Just in time for his family's arrival from New Jersey, Matilsky says.
"Now you'll be very proud, your mother will see your mezuzah," Bruk says.
Bruk drew smiles and naysayers when he and his wife, Chavie, moved from New York City to Montana in 2006. His fish-out-of-water status led to newspaper stories from Jerusalem to New York, where the Post called him "the kosher cowboy."
That attention has had the effect of attracting people curious about his message and his programs, which include kosher certification for Montana food producers.
He has found Jews in Montana are "thirsting" for traditional Judaism, he says.
"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."