December 11, 2009, - 1:23 pm

Chanukah in Montana: Yes, There Are Jews (& a Hebrew-Speaking K-9) in Montana

By Debbie Schlussel

As someone who has spent a great deal of time studying and writing about Jews in America’s old West and how many Jewish merchants played an important role in Manifest Destiny, I’m well aware of the past history of Jews in Montana.  Once there were many, now there are few.  But we were a vital part of American history from its beginning, whereas a certain other religion which wishes to destroy both Jews and Christians, was not.

montanachanukah

Montana’s Democrat Gov. Brian Schweitzer Lights the Chanukah Menorah

Still on the eve of Chanukah, which begins tonight at sundown, I enjoy this story.  And whether or not you are Jewish, I think you will, too. It’s also a great story that transcends religions, but also tells of how the Chabad movement in Judaism–victims of the Mumbai Islamic terrorist attack, a year ago–plays such a vital part in Judaism all over the world and, certainly, all over America . . . no matter how rural. Even a Hebrew speaking dog can appreciate it.

In Montana, a rabbi is an unusual sight. So when a Hasidic one walked into the State Capitol last December, with his long beard, black hat and long black coat, a police officer grabbed his bomb-sniffing German shepherd and went to ask the exotic visitor a few questions.

Though there are few Jews in Montana today, there once were many. In the late 19th century, there were thriving Jewish populations in the mining towns, where Jews emigrated to work as butchers, clothiers, jewelers, tailors and the like.

The city of Butte had kosher markets, a Jewish mayor, a B’nai B’rith lodge and three synagogues. Helena, the capital city, had Temple Emanu-El, built in 1891 with a seating capacity of 500. The elegant original facade still stands, but the building was sold and converted to offices in the 1930s, when the congregation had dwindled to almost nothing, the Jewish population having mostly assimilated or moved on to bigger cities.

There is a Jewish cemetery in Helena, too, with tombstones dating to 1866. But more Jews are buried in Helena than currently live here.

And yet, in a minor revival, Montana now has three rabbis, two in Bozeman and one (appropriately) in Whitefish. They were all at the Capitol on the first night of Hannukah last year to light a menorah in the ornate Capitol rotunda, amid 100-year-old murals depicting Sacajawea meeting Lewis and Clark, the Indians beating Custer, and the railway being built. The security officer and the dog followed the rabbi into the rotunda, to size him up.

Hanukkah has a special significance in Montana these days. In Billings in 1993, vandals broke windows in homes that were displaying menorahs. In a response organized by local church leaders, more than 10,000 of the city’s residents and shopkeepers put make-shift menorahs in their own windows, to protect the city’s three dozen or so Jewish families. The vandalism stopped. . . .

Last year . . .the menorah was lighted and Hebrew prayers chanted, while the officer watched from a distance with his dog. He figured he would let it all go down and then move in when the ceremony was done. The dog sat at attention, watching the ceremony with a peculiar expression on its face, a look of intense interest. When the ceremony was over, the officer approached the Hasidic rabbi.

“I’m Officer John Fosket of the Helena Police,” he said. “This is Miky, our security dog. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

Miky, pronounced Mikey, is in a Diaspora of his own. He was born in an animal shelter in Holland and shipped as a puppy to Israel, where he was trained by the Israeli Defense Forces to sniff out explosives. Then one day, Miky got a plane ticket to America. Rather than spend the standard $20,000 on a bomb dog, the Helena Police Department had shopped around and discovered that it could import a surplus bomb dog from the Israeli forces for the price of the flight. So Miky came to his new home in Helena, to join the police force.

The problem, the officer explained, was that Miky had been trained entirely in Hebrew.

When Officer Fosket got Miky, he was handed a list of a dozen Hebrew commands and expressions, like “Hi’ sha’ er” (stay!), Ch’pess (search!), and “Kelev tov” (good doggy). He made flashcards and tried practicing with Miky. But poor Miky didn’t respond.

Officer Fosket (who is not Jewish) suspected he wasn’t pronouncing the words properly. He tried a Hebrew instructional audio-book from the local library, but no luck. The dog didn’t always understand what he was being ordered to do. Or maybe Miky was just using his owner’s bad pronunciation as an excuse to ignore him. Either way, the policeman needed a rabbi.

And now he had found one. They worked through a few pronunciations, and the rabbi, Chaim Bruk, is now on call to work with Miky and his owner as needed. Officer Fosket has since learned to pronounce the tricky Israeli “ch” sound, and Miky has become a new star on the police force. The two were even brought in by the Secret Service to work a recent presidential visit.

So all is well in the Jewish community here because the Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. It is good news all around. The officer keeps the Capitol safe, and the Hebrew pooch is feeling more at home hearing his native tongue.

But the big winner is the rabbi, a recent arrival from Brooklyn who is working hard (against tough odds) to bring his Lubavitch movement to Montana. He has been scouring the state for anyone who can speak Hebrew, and is elated to have found a German shepherd he can talk to.

Learn more about the Chabad movement and Judaism in Montana.

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14 Responses

Great article. Thank you.

Alain41 on December 11, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Whitefish is in a beautiful area of the state.

cirrus1701 on December 11, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Debbie, in case you are watching, Bing has a menorah celebrating Chanukah on its front page and Google is blank today. Maybe they will change it later today, but I am not surprised since they are politically castrated by Islam.

CaliforniaScreaming on December 11, 2009 at 2:43 pm

I’m a past supporter of Pups for Peace (pupsforpeace.org), an organization funding bomb-sniffing dogs in Israel that emerged early this decade in the wake of the Palestinian terror wave sweeping through the country. I’m surprised they didn’t take that dog if he was truly “surplus”. I also know that several police officers from the US have gone to Israel to train with and have come back with some of those “Hebrew speaking” dogs.

Raymond in DC on December 11, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Miss Schlussel, Et Alii:

Many years ago, when I was living in Saint Anthony, Idaho, I volunteered to teach adults to read and write.

Prior to certification as an adult literacy tutor, my instructor mentioned that one of the original organizers of the local program was Jewish, and from New York City.

The instructor did casually joke about the oddity of a New York Jew in that particular community, as almost everyone there was a rough and ready cowboy driving around in a pickup truck with a gun and a dog.

Subsequently, on one of the Jewish holidays (I don’t remember which one), I called him up to wish him some sort of traditional Hebrew greeting.

He suddenly became VERY paranoid, wanting to know how I knew he was Jewish, and asking me not to tell anyone else.

Immediately afterwards, he and his wife moved to Missoula, Montana.

I have no idea WHY he wouldn’t want anyone to know he was Jewish.

The population of that part of Idaho is composed almost entirely of members of The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints, whose religious teachings are quite supportive of Israel and Judaism.

Yeah, we’re cowboys, but we’re “Mormon” cowboys.

So, his reaction seemed rather mysterious to me.

Thank you.

John Robert Mallernee on December 11, 2009 at 3:59 pm

That was a wonderful article and thanks for sharing it with us. Charlie (my K-9) and me retired a little over a year now. In my 25 years in Law Enforcement I worked in many different division. Charlie (K9) was by far my best partner. Animals have a unique way of bridging the gaps between people, as well as different cultures. We worked a lot of bad neighborhoods in which young kids were taught to hate the cops. Due to Charlie’s nature the kids always wanted to pet him. This provided me an opportunity for community out reach. I was able to inform the kids. That the cops (at any level) are here to protect, serve and provide order to the entire community. I know I got through too many kids, who now trust and believe in the cops.

The rabbi who I’m sure is quite busy was willing to assist his community by helping the officer and his K9 partner. Now, the rabbi will hopefully find it easier to achieve his objectives and get assistance from the community. Like I mentioned above…dogs (other animals too) have a remarkable way a making the gap between different people/cultures come closer together in a positive manner.

I want to give all my thanks to Charlie. I never saw him just as a work dog. He’s now a wonderful family companion who is deeply loved by all in my family…especially me. My only regret, is when I go out and I can’t take him with me. He goes to the garage door with such excitement thinking we’re going to work. And that breaks my heart.

rick on December 11, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Cute story! Happy Chanukah to the Jews throughout the world and to you Debbie!

C on December 11, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Jews in Montana…A VERY FASCINATING STORY. Good find Deb and Happy Chanukah.

Bob Porrazzo on December 11, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Cool that the dog knows Hebrew, but as a German Sheppard, shouldn’t he also speak Yiddish?

Aaron on December 13, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Did you know that the prophet for “a certain other religion which wishes to destroy both Jews and Christians” didn’t like dogs and that to many (okay, all) members of that religion, only working dogs are halal (permitted) and the notion of having a dog as a pet is haram (forbidden)?

You may form your own conclusions.

Tanstaafl on December 7, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Judaism is a disease. Christian Patriotism is the cure.

Joe Bob on August 26, 2012 at 3:51 am

Just saw your picture and have to admit, you got a great pair of lips. What size donation would be required to buy me some, uh, “enhanced” personal service with those lips?

Joe Bob on August 26, 2012 at 3:56 am

fantastic story! thank you :).

pinchas goldstein on April 23, 2014 at 1:18 pm

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