HELENA, Mont. — Two young Orthodox rabbis have traded their studies in Brooklyn for the back roads of Montana, where they are teaching the far-flung faithful how to keep kosher in Big Sky Country.
Eli Chaikin, 23, and Dovid Lepkivker, 25, call themselves the roving rabbis. Their mission is to reach as many of the state's approximately 3,000 Jews as they can in a month.
Their message is a gentle one — more of a nudge than a push — in what are at best loosely organized Jewish communities where relatively few people strictly follow the dietary laws.
"Any step you take is a positive step," Chaikin said. "It's not all or nothing."
Chaikin and Lepkivker are affiliated with Chabad-Lubavich movement. Chabad's Bozeman-based rabbi, Chaim Bruk, said he invited them to help him honor the 40th anniversary of a worldwide campaign to promote observance of the kosher laws by the influential Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, known by his followers as the Rebbe.
"We're celebrating a 40-year milestone when the Rebbe started this idea," Bruk said. "I decided to rock Montana with that."
The roving rabbis have visited more than 60 homes in Montana since July 7, many of them cold-calls to people they had only learned about by asking around town or from someone the next town over.
On a recent visit to Helena, they sat in Beth Pagel's living room as she told them about the traditional meals and snacks she prepares for her grandson's classmates on Jewish holidays. She said she hasn't made many Jewish friends since moving to Montana's capital city from Florida seven years ago, but she was delighted to find two doctors in town who are Jewish.
Pagel readily offered that she is not kosher but told them that she knows the rules: "I'm not going to offer you a cheeseburger," she said.
The rabbis were polite, never disagreeing with their host, but they kept on message.
"I would venture to say you're much more kosher than you think," Lepkivker said.
The rabbis handed her a pamphlet on keeping kosher and pointed out the listing of all the certification symbols found on food products. They ventured into the kitchen, where the rabbis scrutinized everything, the spices, bread, wine and the canned goods.
Then they delivered their request: Just change one non-kosher brand she regularly buys to a kosher one.
Pagel nodded agreeably, but later shook her head no when a reporter asked if she would change anything as a result of the rabbis' visit.
Chaikin and Lepkivker said they aren't discouraged when their message seems to fall on deaf ears. After all, change doesn't come overnight, Lepkivker said.
After another home visit, the rabbis headed to a grocery store to meet a family for a lesson in kosher shopping.
Karen Semple greeted the rabbis with two grandchildren in tow, 12-year-old Ashlie Weitner and her infant brother Levi. Semple told them Ashlie moved to Montana earlier this year and was eager to learn how to keep kosher in her new home.
The group walked aisle by aisle, as the rabbis pulled products to point out all the different labels.
"Dairy's going to be a little bit complicated." Chaikin said.
"All the meat is going to be a problem," he said in another section.
Then they made a good discovery. "Here's our kosher ice cream," he said, holding up a container of Breyer's vanilla.
At the end of the half-hour tour, Lepkivker drove the lesson home. "How much did we see here that wasn't kosher, except for regular dairy and meat?"
Chaikin answered for him: "Probably 80 percent of what we saw is OK."
They said their goodbyes, and Chaikin and Lepkivker climbed back into their sport-utility vehicle with freshly pressed spare white shirts and black trousers in the back seat, ready for their next destination: Montana's farming communities and American Indian reservations near the Canadian border.