A Homecoming in Montana


March 17, 2004

The Flathead Valley of northwest Montana has no synagogue or rabbi, but this year, they had Purim. Thanks to the hard work of three Brooklyn yeshiva students and many area residents, the Flathead Valley had a very special Megillah reading and Purim party this year, complete with a costume contest for the children. And for one of the yeshiva students, the event was a special type of homecoming celebration.

"The whole experience was wonderful," says Yechezkel Berral Barnett, 23, a student at Brooklyn's Yeshiva Hadar Hatorah who grew up in the Flathead Valley. Barnett's story is a study in contrasts and Jewish growth. He recalls growing up in a totally non-observant Jewish household.

"I didn't do anything Jewish in my whole entire life, not even lighting a menorah," Yechezkel recalls. But "I knew very strongly I was Jewish," he says, and he used to get information about the Jewish holidays from his grandparents, along with a "Star of David" necklace that he used to wear.

The Flathead Valley area is a magnet for tourists seeking unspoiled American beauty, and with its majestic snow-capped peaks and shimmering lakes, it offers that in abundance. The area is populated by farmers, loggers, country folk and ex-hippies. But it is not exactly a hot spot for traditional Jewish observance.

In his search for truth, Barnett explored Buddhism and Native American sweatlodges. But he recalls that he didn't look thoroughly into Judaism until friends told him, "You're Jewish. Why don't you find out something about your Jewishness?" To which he replied: "I'd love to. I don't know how."

So Barnett looked in the phone book and discovered a local group, called, appropriately enough, the Jewish Community of the Flathead Valley, and attended a Shabbaton with a visiting rabbi from Texas, who told him that it's never to late to have a bar mitzvah. So Yechezkel, then known to friends and family as Brandon, studied the alef-bet for six months and had his bar mitzvah right after his 19th birthday.

It was a motley crowd of people who attended Barnett's very special Montana bar mitzvah, including his parents and their biker friends, (Barnett's parents being avid motorcyclists), Barnett's friends with baggy pants and skateboards, his friends from the sweatlodges, and all the while, Barnett recalls, you could hear the wagering being orchestrated at a horse auction going on next door. "Give me ten! Give me ten for the filly!"

It was a slow process of growth from there to the yeshiva. Barnett continued with his Buddhist meditation, but one morning, after completing his daily meditations, he looked up and saw his tallis bag on the shelf (this being a reform rabbi, there was no tefillin at the bar mitzvah), and he says now, "I thought, 'Why am I not using that?'"

So, on the advice of his Rabbi, he began saying the Shema prayer morning and evening, and the Shemoneh Esrei prayer and Olaynu prayer three times a day. And he began wearing a yarmulke on a regular basis. Even in Montana.

A year and a half later, he went on a birthright trip to Israel, and went on to attend Hadar Hatorah, a Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavitch yeshiva that is dedicated to young men who grew up with little formal Jewish education.

Recently, Barnett decided that it would be great to hold a special Purim celebration in his Montana home, so for this Purim, he organized a couple of other yeshiva students, and they sent along a list of Purim and holiday goodies, including a kosher Megillah, eight challahs, eight rolls of frozen gefilte fish, and 350 Hamantashen.

One of the other students, Ori Chaim Dreyfuss, saw the event as a beautiful expression of outreach amongst Jews. "It's just an amazing circumstance. Chabad brings a Jewish experience where there wouldn't be one," Dreyfuss said. Another young yeshiva student, Shmuel Shuchat, who is skilled in the mechanics of how to read a Megillah, also went along to perform the reading.

Tanya Gersh, vice president of Bet Harim, the main Jewish organization in the area, says that the community was "super excited" at the news that Barnett and his friends were coming to celebrate Purim with them. "We don't have a rabbi and we don't have a synagogue, but we do have a kosher Torah and we try to get together for all the Jewish holidays," Gersh says. "We feel that he (Barnett) is a product of this community," she says. "We're extremely proud."

Gersh remembers Barnett in the community during his teen years. "It wasn't really until he found his Judaism that he really blossomed," Gersh says. "He found himself."

For many in the Flathead Valley, this Purim was the first time they ever heard a Megillah read in a kosher manner. "I think it opened up another dimension" for many Jews in the area, said Gavriel Snyder, locally known as "Montana Bob," an one of an extremely small number of observant Jews who live in the area. "I think it was fantastic."

"It was very emotional," says Barnett. "The whole place was just electric" in the moments before the Megillah reading, he said.

Tanya Gersh was extremely impressed. "It was a really neat homecoming ... for 'Chezkel,'" Hersh said, using Barnett's nickname. "It was incredibly inspirational," she says. "Our community hasn't had such an inspirational event, I think, ever."

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