Rabbi Chaim Bruk stood on the back porch of Ella Lorentz’s Billings home on Wednesday afternoon.
He instructed Lorentz, an Israeli Jew, how to affix a mezuzah to her doorpost, which Jews believe provides both protection and blessing.
“You’re going to put it up there,” he pointed to a spot a little above her head. “You just push down.”
She pressed her fingers against the small, rectangular acrylic-encased parchment scroll, which contains the handwritten Shema, a biblical passage declaring the oneness of God.
Then he told her to repeat a series of Hebrew words after him.
“There’s a traditional blessing we say when we put up a mezuzah,” he explained. “It is blessing God and thanking him for commanding us to put this up.”
“Now give it your first kiss with your hand,” he said, and Lorentz touched her fingers to her lips and then to the mezuzah.
She already has a mezuzah on her front door.
“I just wanted one for the back door, too, for the blessings and the protection of the house,” she said.
Bruk chatted for a few more minutes with Lorentz and her husband, Matthew. Daughter Zoe, 2, was taking her afternoon nap, so Ella pulled out her cellphone to show the rabbi a picture.
She told him various members of her family are traveling from Israel to Montana for visits in the coming months. Bruk encouraged her to bring them for a visit to his synagogue in Bozeman.
Then he left to deliver a mezuzah to Melinda Maurisac, who lives in another Billings neighborhood.
Bruk moved to Bozeman from Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife, Chavie, in 2007, to open a Chabad-Lubavitch center. He presides over the only Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the state.
The synagogue doesn’t have a membership, but for special days on the Jewish calendar, it can draw many people. Passover this year drew more than 150, and the summer brings many people from around the U.S. and beyond for the Sabbath.
“The synagogue in Bozeman is growing, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively,” he said. “Families are getting more involved. Some who came once a year are coming seven times, and those who came once in a while now come every week.”
Chabad-Lubavitch educates and provides religious support to isolated Jewish populations. His goal is to reach out to as many Jews as he can in the state, no matter the branch of Judaism they belong to.
The statewide Montana Mezuzah Campaign has been on Bruk’s to-do list for a long time. His mentor, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who died in 1994, taught him the need to reach people where they are.
Whether Jewish families' homes are fully kosher, whether they fully observe the Sabbath, offering them a mezuzah is an opportunity to help them grow in their faith, Bruk said.
“Putting up a mezuzah on the doorpost of a home or office is not a complicated thing to do, but it’s a very deep thing,” he said. “Not only does it give them the opportunity to fulfill a biblical commandment, but it actually brings a healthy Jewish identity to the home.”
In the book of Deuteronomy, God commands the Jews to put a mezuzah on their doorpost, or, said Bruk, any room where they live for part of the day.
The mezuzah’s protection and blessing extends beyond the home, he added. When they leave home, the divine energy and divine protection goes with them.
“Wherever we go, we should have a reminder of relationship with the Almighty and a reminder of his infinite and eternal protection,” he said.
A kosher mezuzah is handwritten on parchment by a scribe using a special quill pen and a particular kind of ink. The scribe meticulously writes the designated verses on the parchment.
Many people don’t know it must be written on parchment, Bruk said, or if the ink has faded that it is no longer kosher.
“Or they buy an expensive case but it’s missing the scroll,” he said.
In addition to providing free mezuzahs to Jews who request them, Bruk has offered to check mezuzahs to make sure they are kosher.
He has already delivered mezuzahs to people in Kalispell, Missoula, Whitefish, Big Fork, Helena, Livingston, Bozeman and Billings.
“And I’ve actually had some people as far away as Fargo, N.D., and someone in central Washington that gets my email says ‘I don’t have a mezuzah, can you help me?’ ”
The campaign became a reality in the aftermath of his grandmother’s death. Chana Bruk, 90, died in Israel just before Passover, leaving more than 350 living descendents, Bruk said.
“I said I need to do something in her memory, let’s see if we can get the mezuzah campaign going,” he said.
Bruk contacted a relative who agreed to underwrite the project and ordered 200 mezuzahs to get started. They are free to any Jewish family in the state that doesn’t have a kosher mezuzah on their front door.
People have learned about the campaign through Chabad-Lubavitch of Montana's website, through emails and on Facebook.
Bruk also said he’d be glad to sell mezuzahs to non-Jews at cost, about $35 or $40 each.
“In stories in oral Jewish tradition, traditionally non-Jews in positions of leadership wanted to have mezuzahs, wanted to have protection, and were granted them by Jewish sages of the time,” Bruk said.