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Rabbi Chaim Bruk is one of two Orthodox Rabbis in the state of Montana. His work is consuming. Just after opening a Chabad Center, the state’s first Torah study center associated with the Orthodox Lubavitch-Chabad movement in the state, he opened a second. Now, he’s working on opening a third. He wants to create joyful hubs for Jewish life in a state not exactly known for its Hebrew people. And his work seems to be paying off. His inbox is full. His days are packed. And he doesn’t get to relax when he goes home. Bruk is the father of five kids between the ages of 14 and one. He has the family he wanted. He’s devoted to them. He’s fine not sleeping.
After all, it didn’t always look like it was going to go his way.
The Rabbi and his wife, Chavie, got married in 2006. They immediately starting trying, but a year and a half later, they still didn’t have any children. So they went to a fertility specialist in New York City. “Everyone gives you all their advice,” says Rabbi Chaim. “Everybody seems to know the exact burden, you know? ‘Don’t worry about it, enjoy your time while you don’t have kids.’ We did. But the anxiety of not knowing what was wrong was taking a toll on us.”
Then they knew.
Chavie was 23 and Rabbi Bruk was 26 when they learned they were not ever going to have biological children. “For an Orthodox Jewish couple, that is beyond devastating,” Bruk says. “But my father-in-law said something to me that I’ll never forget: ‘It must be that there are children in this world that God intends you guys to take in as your own.’ That planted a seed. I can’t say we were relieved. We weren’t. But we knew one thing for certain: we were going to be parents.”
Adoption, they found out, was very expensive. There were tests they’d have to pass, fees they’d have to pay, laws they’d have to learn. They looked international and found no luck there. They looked in the state of Montana and found that there were very few — if any — adoptable Jewish babies. And though they knew that ultimately, they would adopt their kids, they weren’t sure how it was going to happen. Until they got a call from a friend one day, out of the blue.
“He said that there was a Jewish child, born in Russia, who was in the United States for medical treatment. The baby was born a preemie, at 33 weeks. It was a Jewish baby. The mother wanted to give it up for adoption. We realized that when it’s meant to be, it can move very quickly. Six or seven weeks after later, we adopted our baby Chaya.”
Over the next 10 years, they ended up adopting four more children, starting with a daughter who arrived just five months later. “I got a call from a Rabbi who said, ‘There’s a situation in our community,’” Bruk says. “That’s how all the conversations start. You’re basically asking someone, ‘Are you ready for another baby?’ It’s an odd question to ask if you’re not married to them.”
But the Bruks were ready and Zissy came into their lives. It happened quick, but, as Rabbi Chaim jokes, it’s not as though Orthodox Jews are big on birth control. “When my mom heard we were going to adopt a second child she said, ‘Chaim, you’re doing the adoption route. Why do you have to do two so close to each other?’ I said, ‘Ma, I thought you told me that we don’t believe in family planning.’”
After they adopted Chaya, and Zissy — who they held for the first time in the Newark Airport Enterprise Rent-A-Car parking lot — they waited a few years, until they heard about Menachem. Menachem — Menny for short — is black. That’s noteworthy not only because Montana has a small black population (and a very, very small black and Jewish population), but because Bruk’s home neighborhood of Crown Heights has long been shared by Orthodox Jews and Caribbean Americans. Tensions have flared in the past. Bruk was nervous.
“I wasn’t in denial — nor did I think my community was racist. I just knew the reality, that my community was not used to anything that looks different than the typical Caucasian European descended Jew or a Sephardic Jew.” The decision was made easier by his wife. “She was like, ‘We’ve gotten through infertility. We’ve done two adoptions. Why don’t we be the ones to show our community that this is possible? That we don’t have to be scared about the insults?’” And in April 2013, Menny was theirs.
After Menny came a 12-year-old girl named Shoshanna. “That’s a whole different animal,” Bruk laughs. “That’s preteen! That’s emotions and hormones and attitude and 12 years of history that needs to be unraveled!”
Still, they did it. Then they adopted their latest baby. Her name is Chana Lei, named after Chaim’s mother, who passed away from cancer just after they adopted their first child.
So now, Chaim is a father of five in Big Sky Country. What does that mean? Well, trying to remain focused on his work as a rabbi and on six people he loves, all of whom have different wants and needs. The fact that his kids are adopted complicates the demands — they have different baggage, after all — but not in a way that Bruk finds unmanageable. He uses one tool and it gets the job done.
“The rule of thumb needs to be love, love and more love,” says Bruk. “Often children think that our love for them is conditional. We are allowed to be disappointed with our children, but the love for them should never go away.”
How to best communicate love? Constancy. Every morning, Bruk wakes the kids up and feeds them breakfast before taking them to school and doing his own Rabbinic outreach for the day. And although he’s busy, being one of just two Orthodox rabbis in the entire state of Montana, he also makes sure that everything he does helps his kids understand that they are the most important part of his lives.
“There are going to be days when you’re going to be frustrated because you thought you made progress, but you really didn’t. And that’s part of being a father. I did the same things to my father. Why would my kid be any different?” laughs Bruk. “Being a father is not easy for me. But I’m still a father all the time. No matter what they do to mess with my head, to mess with my heart, to challenge my authority, the kids know my love will never dissipate.”
Rabbi Bruk is trying to put a mezuzah on every Jewish home in the state of Montana. He hosts rabbinical students from Brooklyn. He keeps opening Chabad centers. But every night at 6PM he’s at the dinner table with his wife and kids. And every morning at 5AM, he’s awake. He gets an hour alone. He cherishes the time, but doesn’t extend it. He waited long enough. This is his life. He’s worked hard to get here.