Rabbi Chaim Bruk's fierce support of Israel
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Nearly twenty years ago, Chaim Bruk, a young rabbi from Brooklyn, moved to Bozeman with the goal of bolstering Jewish life in the Mountain West. Now in his early forties, Bruk, along with his wife, Chavie, has built a community of Chabad Jews in Montana. Thanks to Bruk’s work, the religious organization—a subset of Orthodox Judaism—now has anchors in several cities around the state.
Along the way, Bruk has established himself as one of the most prominent Jewish voices in Montana. Since Hamas’ atrocious attack on Israeli citizens and soldiers last month, he has been particularly vocal. He has met with politicians, hosted events and fundraisers and used his substantial social media following to both emphasize his staunch support of Israel and to denounce Free Palestine protestors.
Bruk also holds a poignant personal relationship to Israel. He has visited the country over thirty times, including several stints during his rabbinical training. Members of his family have lived in what is now Israel since the mid-19th century.
Like Bruk, I’m also Jewish, but, as you’ll read, that doesn’t mean we always see eye to eye. Bruk largely approaches notions of anti-Semitism and the current conflict in clear-cut terms, but I believe that the moment demands a more nuanced perspective. Read on as Bruk and I discuss a variety of topics, including his fiery criticisms of opponents of Israel’s military actions, his take on Rep. Rosendale’s photo-op, earlier this year, with a group of neo-Nazis, his advice for American Jews who feel unsafe in the wake of the attacks and more.
Note: This interview includes graphic references to violence.
Max: Can you describe your own experiences in Israel?
Rabbi Chaim Bruk: Israel's a second home. I mean, it's the home of a Jew, whether I like it or not. I land in Israel and I feel like I just got home.
But when people talk about Israel as if it's some Theodor Herzl invention, it always cracks me up. G-d gave the land of Israel to Abraham. That's my connection to the land of Israel. It's not Theodor Herzl, who was a super secular individual.
For you, where is the line between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitic sentiment? Especially in the past two months, I’ve really struggled with this question.
It is a tough question, I will admit, because there are some that are genuinely against the Netanyahu government or the right-wing government, and are supportive of their Jewish friends. But that's a very, very small amount of people.
For me, the line is: you can't tell me you care about Palestinian children when 600,000 Syrians, including tens of thousands of children, were killed with Sarin gas and you said nothing. Where you were when 380,000 Yemenites were slaughtered?
If you care about Arabs—if that's truly what this is about; colonization or murder or genocide, all these words they throw around—where were you when kids in Lebanon, Libya were slaughtered? You were nowhere to be found.
I think that lots of people believe that Israel has the right to defend itself, but there’s a wide range in the sorts of action they consider justified, versus actions that cross a line. Where do you draw that line, personally?
I think the Hamas terrorists, what they did on October 7th—putting babies in ovens, beheadings, the raping, the cutting off limbs, the killing children in front of parents—it puts the Nazis to shame. Hitler would've been jealous that the Hamas guys were capable of pulling this off.
So how do you deal with that? Either you play footsie with them and you start making peace processes with a group of people that's capable of taking a human baby and putting it in an oven, or, anyone that has a heart says, “No, you don't negotiate. There's nothing to negotiate here.”
Israel has to make very hard decisions. I don't envy anyone in the bunkers in Tel Aviv making the decisions. I don't think anyone takes the decisions lightly. But I'm also not a spokesman of the Israeli government. And I've never claimed to be. I don't even speak for the people of Israel. I speak for the Jewish community in Montana, and I speak for the Torah that teaches us what our values are.
We see every human being—Jew, Arab, Buddhist, Baháʼí, it makes no difference—as created in the image of G-d. So anytime a human life is lost, it's a tragedy. But sometimes there's no choice. That's the cost of war.
I go back to Dresden. I don't think Winston Churchill bombed Dresden flippantly. There's no choice, if you want to overcome evil.
There comes a point where it's either more Jews dying or getting rid of evil, along with some very sad collateral damage.
If what we saw in Gaza were to expand to Judea and Samaria—or what the UN calls the West Bank—we're gonna have a much bigger problem on our hands.
The only ones at fault of what happens in Gaza is Hamas, what they've created in Gaza, what they've turned Gaza into with the underground tunnels and in the hospitals.
By the way, here in America, it's so ironic that a lot of people have big signs, Queers for Palestine—are you out of your mind? You know what they do to gay people in Palestine? They get murdered and tortured.
The idea that there's such a misunderstanding of what this enemy really is, tells me that the hatred for Jews is so strong that you're not even letting your brain think this through before you side with the guy that would throw you off a rooftop, rather than stand with the Jews against the people that would throw you off the roof.
For me, there’s some gray area here.
I'm more of a black and white guy, but, sure.
It feels dangerous to believe or to presume that anyone who advocates for a free Palestine is explicitly aligned with Hamas. That's a tough pill for me to swallow.
So far every video I've seen—and it's probably been 200 of them—of random street journalists going around these Free Palestine demonstrations, asking people what they thought about Hamas, [include] people that can't give an unequivocal stance, and just say that [Hamas] are evil, barbaric animals, tells me everything I need to know. Not all of them are gonna say, “Yes, all Jews need to die.” But if they're not ready to condemn those that are willing to kill every Jew, it's the same thing. All you need for evil to prosper is for good people to sit and be silent.
I'm not going to label millions of Americans one way or another. But to me, if you can't unequivocally condemn Hamas, you are the problem that is okay with the Holocaust transpiring.
Jews don't like war. But if we have to choose defending ourselves over the obituaries that the world will give us later, I don't want the New York Times obituary. I prefer their condemnation. I'm a grandson of Holocaust survivors. My grandfather survived; his six siblings and his parents were murdered for being Jewish. It's not a foreign entity to me.
You posted a video in which you call for “eradicating irrational arrogance.” Can you expound on that?
In Judaism, arrogance and narcissism are the most disgusting character traits that a person can live with. [Those people] have some kind of high moral ground, but really it's just an arrogance that's irrational, that needs to be eradicated. We're not eradicating people.
Character trait refinement is a very big deal in Judaism; spiritual and emotional. We're not meant to be stagnant; if you stand in front of the mirror in the morning and you think you're super special because you're fighting against Israel and you represent something, ask yourself, why? And then get busy trying to be a little bit more humble and asking yourself the honest question: “Why is it that I don't like Jews so much? And do I really care about Palestine? Because I'll be honest, when other Arabs are slaughtered, I don't give a damn. And so maybe it's not about Palestine. Maybe deep down I have some kind of envy of the Jews that I can't explain. And so now, I'm able to let out my nerves against Jews by claiming I'm standing with Palestine.”
This might just be a point we have to agree to disagree on.
If we agreed on everything, we wouldn't be Jewish.
I’m not convinced that everyone who opposes this war embodies those traits.
I don't think anything I say applies to everyone. I am generalizing. As a whole, the people that are getting up in the morning, American kids on a college campus that are coming out of their apartments screaming for Palestine, have to stand and ask themselves an honest question:
Why do I have such a low self-esteem and a low self-worth that in order to be noticed I need to get out there and always have a cause that I'm fighting for?
In Montana, and elsewhere, there have been a lot of folks, especially on the political right, who in recent weeks have expressed their support for Israel and for the Jewish people. I do believe they’re speaking in earnest, but for me there's also a bit of friction because I think that over the past couple years, there've been some pretty disconcerting anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred within the Montana Republican Party that have been met with silence from within the GOP, and, granted, sometimes from Democrats, too. I’m thinking of Representative Rosendale’s photo with a group of neo-Nazis, or Senator Keith Regier paying homage to Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, on the Senate floor. I was curious what you think about those incidents.
In my seventeen years in Montana, except for the case of Whitefish in 2016—no one has said or done anything that made my ears go bananas. The closest would've been the Rosendale picture.
Matt Rosendale, he actually loves giving our family raw honey from his hives over in Sidney. But it was clear from the minute reporters found out that these were neo-Nazis, he totally disavowed being associated with them. I've watched enough politicians in my life to know that people run over to them all the time for photo ops. And you don't say, “Hey, can I see your driver's license?” The other one with Regier I didn't even hear about, which obviously means that it wasn't loud enough that anyone even came to me about it.
I agree that, not in Montana, but in general over the last ten years, we've had some borderline and maybe more than borderline right-wing things said about Jews that are very, very problematic. In Montana, the only real moment that I was slightly concerned about was one of those pastors up in the Flathead area, [Chuck Baldwin]. He was saying some straight up anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic stuff. But from the politicians, not on the right and not on the left, have I ever heard anything prior to October 7th that would make me be concerned.
I have always felt as a rabbi that I have an open line to all of our state and federal leadership. I've never had an issue getting a hold of anyone: whether it's the Attorney General; whether it's the Senators—I heard immediately after October 7th from Senator Tester’s chief of staff, Dylan Laslovich; Senator Daines texted me; Gianforte was here for the event; Rosendale texted me; Zinke called me; we're gonna have a meeting with Monica Tranel; Joey Morrison, the new mayor-elect in Bozeman [will be here sometime soon]. My job as a rabbi is to work with whoever is in a position of power and make sure that they understand the Jewish community's position on things.
Perceived threats and real threats are not always the same thing, granted. But I do feel less safe than I did two months ago as a Jewish person in America. And I'm curious if folks in your community are saying similar things. And if so, what do you say to them?
First of all, I don't think there's one Jew in America that doesn't feel less safe than they did six weeks ago, myself included. I recommended right in the beginning to anyone in my community that isn't armed to get trained and get armed. It's a crazy thing. I hate the idea. But I don't think we have a choice.
And the second thing I recommend to people is that if your identity as a Jew was sort of low-key, up your game. Become more identifiable in your Judaism. You didn't have a mezuzah, put one up. If you weren't wearing a yarmulka, put one on. If you weren't keeping Shabbas, start. If you weren't keeping kosher, do a little bit.
Grow your Judaism. That's all you've got. The enemies of the Jews will kill you whether you're religious or not, so you might as well cling to the beautiful heritage that they hate you for. Don't duck, don't hide. Protect yourself. Be smart. Be safe.
Maybe this is a wake up call to Jews. In the last six weeks, tens of Jews that have been living both in and outside of Gallatin Valley, who've been living here for decades or years without ever being involved in any Jewish congregation, have come here and want be part of the community. Now they feel like they have this inner need and yearning to be part of their Jewish family.
Doing what we have to do to protect ourselves and then being as identifiably Jewish as possible is the response.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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