BILLINGS – An orthodox rabbi from Bozeman has opened Montana’s first kosher certification agency as part of his drive to bolster Judaism in the Big Sky State, where fewer Jews live than almost anywhere else in the country.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk said his first client, a Gallatin County grain plant, could be certified as kosher sometime next month. Among observant Jews, kosher law defines what foods are fit for consumption and how they must be prepared.
Bruk moved to Montana from New York in 2007 to conduct outreach for the orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement of Judaism.
“If I was in New York as a rabbi I wouldn’t have to deal with kosher because there’s enough agencies in New York that do that,” he said. “But there’s no reason why somebody running a business in Victor, Mont., or somebody running a plant in Helena should not have the opportunity to expand to the kosher market.”
There are about 5 million Jews in the U.S. Estimates for the number in Montana vary widely.
The American Jewish Year Book put the figure at 850 several years ago. Bruk estimates as many as 5,000 out of Montana’s 989,000 residents could be Jewish. There are nine congregations in Montana, generally in the state’s larger towns and cities.
Most of those are reform congregations. While their members may not share Bruk’s orthodox views, the rabbi said he hopes his work promoting kosher will promote “good old authentic Judaism” to a broader audience than just his immediate followers.
Rabbi Barbara Block of Congregation Beth Aaron, a reform congregation in Billings, said staying kosher is gaining renewed favor among some reform Jews, who see it not just in a traditional context but also an ethical one. Block said many seek out a specific kosher label that emerged in recent years to signify environmentally friendly food production, known as eco-kashrut.
“It’s taking a broader view of how our food is produced – were the animals treated humanely, were the workers treated humanely,” Block said. “We all take the tradition very seriously and have different views about how it is best expressed.”
To be certified, companies must be inspected by a rabbi or kosher supervision agency to ensure processed foods are free of non-kosher ingredients.