Rabbi Berry Nash sits in the kitchen of an unfurnished house on Missoula’s Southside, at a small table that’s empty except for a few bottles of water and a paper bowl full of kosher chocolate chip cookies. He’s more than 2,400 miles from his home in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, an enclave of deeply Orthodox Jews, because he’s on a mission. Nash wants to reach out to Jews in Montana and lead them toward a more traditional and rigorous form of religious practice.
“We just want to give Judaism,” Nash says. “We want to give what people want to take. We’re not forcing anyone. There’s no all or nothing. The ability to take what you wish. What we want to do is give people the opportunity to grow at the standards that they choose.”
Though Nash insists he intends only to offer instruction to those who want it, in the way they want it, some in western Montana’s small Jewish community are concerned about the message Nash will bring, how he will deliver it and what it will mean for the region’s few existing congregations. Their concern derives from the brand of Orthodox Judaism that Nash espouses.
Nash is a follower of Chabad, a strict, mystical and messianic movement that began 250 years ago in Poland. Whereas most Jewish congregations are locally funded and eschew missionary work, Chabad has created a complex infrastructure for sending emissaries known as shlichim around the world to reach out to other Jews, encourage them to adopt its brand of belief and establish new centers and synagogues for Orthodox practice. Chabad has been remarkably successful, especially since 1950, when Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed leadership of the movement. Though the Rebbe, as he is commonly known, died in 1994, the movement’s growth has continued since his passing. According to a recent article in Israeli news source Haaretz, there are now Chabad institutions in more than 1,200 cities. One such institution was founded in Bozeman in 2007. Its success led to the decision to start the new center in Missoula.
As Chabad has grown, criticism of the movement has increased. In The Rebbe’s Army, a book-length account of Chabad, Sue Fishkoff writes, “The movement’s highly public, in-your-face brand of Judaism makes it off-putting to some American Jews, as does the way shlichim seem to steamroll into town setting up shop with great fanfare in communities where the Jewish population has maintained a more circumspect profile. Chabad’s refusal to recognize non-Orthodox Jewish denominations puts the group at odds with the majority of rabbis working in this country, and with most national Jewish organizations. … Chabad is criticized for both being too religious and for pushing the outreach envelope too far.”
Allen Secher, a now retired rabbi who previously served congregations in Bozeman and Whitefish, shares many of these concerns, citing the movement’s tendency not to tolerate differences within Judaism, its mandate that the sexes be separated during services and the aggressive outreach tactics of local Chabad.
“Sometimes there’s no limit in their reach out,” Secher says. “They knock on doors. Much like other fundamentalist groups, they knock on doors and insist that you do immediately what they’ve come to tell you you have to do. They will come and insist you do morning prayers with them. … I’ve had—I know of people in Whitefish who have said, ‘Leave me alone. Please do not come back again.’ They are zealots. That’s the right term. They’re zealots, and their zealotry, on occasion, can become aggressive.”
Some in Montana’s Jewish community worry as well that the local growth of Chabad will come at the expense of the sustainability of existing congregations. Missoula’s Reform congregation, Har Shalom, has only about 55 member families. Bozeman’s congregation Beth Shalom, which is affiliated with the Reform and Renewal movements, has an estimated 120 member families. Because Chabad aims to attract non-Orthodox Jews, the movement will almost inevitably compete for these members.
Rabbi Nash, however, sees his outreach efforts not as a form of competition but as a vital way of life. Though only 25, he has been spreading the Chabad message for more than a decade, since he was 14.
“Every week, I’ve walked out of my house for hours,” he says, “looking for Jews, stopping people on the street.”
Those streets were in Manhattan, Montreal and other large cities with substantial Jewish populations. In Missoula, Nash knows, the challenge will be different. He plans to look for potential converts however he can—online, on the University of Montana campus, through word of mouth and by offering free classes.
“The numbers are definitely gonna be fewer,” he says, “but it’s not the quantity. It’s really, every person counts.”
Laurie Franklin, the spiritual leader of Missoula’s Har Shalom, acknowledges the difference between Chabad and her congregation’s progressive form of practice, but she doesn’t hold the same concerns as others. She remains optimistic that the two practices will be able to coexist.
“I have a great appreciation of Orthodoxy in its many forms,” she says. “I wish them well. What can I say? Will they be able to establish a stable base in Missoula? I don’t have a crystal ball. I have no idea. But hopefully, there will be room for both.”