Washing away the unclean

bfieldmikvahHaving spent the past two years almost exclusively reporting on the American Jewish community, it's easy to forget how foreign some parts of traditional Jewish life are to most Americans. That's why I could really appreciate this story from the Associated Press that does an excellent job of educating readers while informing them about a development in Big Sky country:

In one of the least-Jewish states in the country, a traditional Jewish group working to revive religious observance has built a mikvah, a ritual bath for spiritual purification. The bath opened several months ago in an extension built onto the Bozeman home of Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his wife, Chavie, who came here with the Hasidic movement Chabad Lubavitch.

Chabad sends couples around the world, including to remote spots with tiny Jewish populations, to cook kosher dinners for travelers, teach rituals such as lighting Sabbath candles and lead classes on Judaism.

As a result of the Bruks' work, the Big Sky state now has what Chabad says is the only contemporary mikvah in a vast area that includes Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Bruks expect to draw Jews from outside the state, including tourists.

It's "a milestone for Jewish life in Montana," Mr. Bruk said.

Where this story really succeeds is in showing why a mikvah is crucial to Jewish life -- it is required of women to cleanse themselves after menstruating and also before weddings. While for years this was a tradition only followed by the Orthodox, many more American Jewish women in recent years have taken to visiting mikvahs. And for many it's a requisite for relocating to a community.

As is often the case in small Jewish community where Chabads has set up shop, the synagogue is no grand temple. It's Bruk's converted garage and it draws about 30 people for Shabbat services. The mikvah is next door.

Justine Phelps, an Orthodox Jew, used to drive 400 miles from Montana to Utah for monthly immersion. Sometimes she flew. She and her husband moved last year to Montana from Irvine in Southern California because "we wanted to live in the 'last best place.' We were tired of the craziness of life in California and the expense in California."

Before choosing Bozeman as their new home, the two software engineers checked on the Jewish presence. Mrs. Phelps had used the mikvah throughout her eight-year marriage.

"Of all the places we could have gone, we needed to be in a place with a Jewish community," said Mrs. Phelps, 38. "We asked the right questions and did all the research," and in doing so learned a mikvah was planned.

"If there were no plans we would have had to make a plan, such as building one ourselves or finding a public area that would have been successful," she said.

However, the establishment of a mikvah in a state with less than 1,000 Jewish residents isn't as surprising as we're led to believe. While this is, as the rabbi says, a milestone for Montana Jews, there are ritual Jewish baths scattered throughout the far corners of the earth. For instance, Morocco, with its historic Jewish community now numbering about 3,000 has nine mikvahs; Zimbabwe, with 400 Jews, has one too. There's a mikvah in Postville, Iowa, and two in Des Moines; two in Kansas and three in Indiana, including one in the town that is home to that great Catholic football school. Indeed, the ritual baths abound in the United States, but, again, this is a first for Big Sky country.

The AP story also sheds a bit of light on the Chasidic movement by profiling Bruk and his wife. One mention I might have liked to have seen here is more discussion of the far-flung places where Chabad houses have been established, and the role these have played for sojourning American Jews. In this context, the reporter also could have discussed the tragic targeting of the Mumbai Chabad house during the terror attacks there over Thanksgiving.

More than a jacuzzi. The mikvah at Chabad of Bakersfield in Central California.

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