While Montana might be known for its physical beauty and abundance of hiking, rafting, and camping, it’s not known for having a thriving Jewish community. For many years, Allen Secher, who is stepping down as rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Bozeman to focus on serving the small Jewish community of Flathead, was the only rabbi in the state. With news of his retirement, Forward magazine took a look into the Jewish population that makes up Montana.
What Forward found was a diverse and growing Jewish community, from a Bozeman seder in 1982 that consisted of two couples to a population that now numbers around 1000, according to Secher (though he thinks there are more who are not involved in the community).
As Secher’s story is told, an interesting observation is made about what caused the Jewish community to grow at such an astonishing rate – intermarriage.
Still, no one disputes the difficulty of maintaining Jewishness in a community that is both so small and so internally diverse. Synagogue officials say that almost 50% of Temple Beth Shalom members are intermarried. Although considered by some to be a threat to American Jewish life, a number of people in Bozeman argue that intermarriage has saved the community.
Indeed, this is the inspiration behind Chabad’s presence in the state. Rabbi Chaim Bruk, who visited Montana as a yeshiva student in the summers of 2004 and 2005, spoke with Jews from Miles City to Eureka, and found that “Montanan Jewry is interested and eager to learn Torah.” He moved here in 2006 with his wife, and the following year he established formal roots in Bozeman.
“While most of the Jews attending Chabad’s events are intermarried and secular, they are interested in studying traditional Yiddishkeit,” he said, “because their souls are yearning for authenticity.”
As Jews married people of other religions, they not only held onto their Jewish roots, but those roots grew stronger. This happened because Montana’s Jewish community was as open as the state’s big sky, accommodating and including Jews of all backgrounds. And it’s an example of what we at JOI have been working towards over the last two decades on a national level. Intermarriage doesn’t mean we’ve lost someone to Judaism – it means we have an opportunity to support these families and help them discover how warm and welcoming the Jewish community can be.