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Pair spend summer serving Montana Jews

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Pair spend summer serving Montana Jews
Rabbi Chaim Bruk, left, and rabbinical student Arik Denebeim are travelling through Montana to meet with local Jewish families.

Not many college-age students would give up their summer to spread religious inspiration and knowledge, but for two Jewish men, there's no better way to vacation.

"They don't need me in New York; they've got enough of my guys in New York. They need me in Montana," said Rabbi Chaim Bruk, who is from Brooklyn.

As a member of Chabad-Lubavitch, 23-year-old Bruk is spending his second summer reaching out to Jews in Montana. Joining him is 20-year-old Arik Denebeim from Palm Springs, Calif., a rabbinical student who'll be ordained in two years.

Chabad-Lubavitch is a Jewish organization headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y. The organization educates and provides religious support to isolated Jewish populations.

Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for the words meaning wisdom, understanding and knowledge, Bruk said. Lubavitch is a town in White Russia, the region commonly known as Belarus, where the religious organization originated.

"We're here to supply knowledge, wisdom and inspiration," Bruk said. "If they're here, we've got be here. We call ourselves the Jewish Peace Corps."

Bruk and Denebeim will spend nearly a month visiting Montana Jews, stopping everywhere from Billings to Eureka to Missoula.

Bruk said everyone they've met so far has been friendly and helpful.

"Most bad experiences are from people that aren't really aware of what we're all about," Bruk said. "We're not here to change anyone. We're not here to convert (people)."

Bruk said Bozeman seems to have the state's largest Jewish population, followed by Missoula.

Other members of Chabad-Lubavitch are spending their summer in places such as Bosnia and Africa.

"The most far-flung places are touched," Bruk said. "There are Jews everywhere. In a good way, they try to mix in with everyone else."

Both Bruk and Denebeim grew up in predominately Jewish communities, which inspired them to be part of Chabad-Lubavitch.

Bruk shared a community with Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Schneerson, who died in 1994, is considered one of the most influential and charismatic Jewish leaders in history.

"My entire childhood was surrounded around him," Bruk said.

As a boy, Bruk and his friends talked about how they too wanted to be leaders in their community.

"We wanted to adhere to his message and take him as a role model," Bruk said. "As a child, he inspired me."

Denebeim also grew up with influential people. As some of first Jews in Palm Springs, his parents played a role in building the Jewish community there.

"I grew up doing this," Denebeim said of spreading religious support.

However, his trip to Montana is different from working with his parents.

"It's the first time I get to speak to them (the people) on a personal level," Denebeim said.

Denebeim also spent the last two Passovers, a Jewish holiday, doing work similar to this summer's trip. Last year, Denebeim was in Russia and this year he was in Thailand after the tsunami.

Traditionally, Passover is a time dedicated to family, Denebeim said. He has 14 brothers and sisters.

"It's the only time we all get together," he said.

Giving up family time isn't the only hardship in taking on a religious mission. Finding kosher food is another obstacle Bruk and Denebeim face.

"It's not easy to come to Montana," Bruk said. "Where I'm from, there are 380 kosher restaurants. I came to a place where there are none."

Despite the challenges, Bruk said, the inspiration and support offered by Chabad-Lubavitch has grown.

"All you've got to do is uncover that little spark that's in every Jew," Bruk said.

A friend of Bruk's even opened a Jewish center on St. Thomas Island, which is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"Ten years ago, no one dreamt we'd expand that far," Bruk said. "More than ever before has our organization reached out to Jews."

At the end of the day, Bruk and Denebeim don't consider themselves any different from everyone else their age.

"We're regular American kids that are proud of their heritage," Bruk said.

"We just look a little different," Denebeim added. "It's not such a complicated thing."

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