Rabbis Mendel Hertz and Schneur Druk are spending a month in Wyoming, taking a break from their schooling in New York City to visit communities in the state.
“Wyoming is a little farther from some of the bigger cities,” Hertz said. “There aren’t too many people in Wyoming, let alone too many Jewish people in Wyoming. It’s not so easy to practice full religion. When we come by and bring out their religion, it’s very special to them, and it’s very special to a lot of people.”
The rabbis are part of the Chabad movement, first started in a small town in Russia, Hertz said.
“A lot of Jewish people came to America and they weren’t gifted to have a proper education about their beliefs and about their religion and proper understanding of the Jewish rituals,” he said. “After WWII, things were pretty chaotic. When the moving was over, the vision was to send students and disciples to every small town to visit the Jewish people.”
Druk and Hertz have made several trips around the world. In 2015, Druk was in Texas. Hertz has spent Passover in Oslo, Norway and a small town in Ukraine.
“The philosophy is that every Jewish person is important,” he said. “It’s about going to the smaller communities. The idea is we go out and get Jewish names and meet Jewish people. We give our number out and people can call us. It’s just a special opportunity to reach out to one Jew.”
So far, the duo is enjoying their stay in Wyoming.
“Wyoming people are very, very warm,” Hertz said. “Here’s an interesting story that happened — we came out of the airport and we’re driving and we have to pull into the gas station for gas. We get out of the car, and the guy says, ‘How you guys doing?’ I turn to Schneur and say, ‘Go lock the car.’ In New York and Chicago, someone says that, you have to be careful. He wants your wallet. But here in Wyoming, people are so welcoming and very helpful, Jews and non-Jews alike.”
So far, the pair has visited Jackson, Casper, Douglas, Lusk and Cheyenne on their trip and plan on continuing their trip westward. They stopped and spoke with former Gov. Mike Sullivan on their journey.
“We spoke with him, and he wanted to hear about Judaism and the message of Chabad, our organization, about what we do, we had a beautiful conversation with him,” Hertz said. “It’s Jews and non-Jews alike, and that’s the response we get — people are very warm and welcoming.”
Author Reid Rosenthal’s ranch was another stop for the rabbis.
“We drove a few hours out to this ranch to find this one Jew, Rosenthal, who never had the opportunity to practice religion on the ranch,” he said. “We pulled into the ranch and see a big guy with a big gun on his back, and then doing a mitzvah on his ranch surrounded by the scenery. He got very emotional and said, ‘You guys really came down and touched me, and made this very special.’”
Hertz said interesting meetings such as this happen every day.
“Some people haven’t seen a guy walking around with a hat and jacket for a long time, so it’s exciting for a lot of them, so it’s exciting for them,” Hertz said. “We met this guy, he’s like, ‘You guys, I can’t believe you — how did you find me? This is awesome.’ He was very emotional. He said, ‘You guys don’t understand how special this is for me.’”
Druk said they have a couple ways of finding Jewish people in a community.
“There are Jews we go out to,” he said. “Sometimes we go out to the street and you meet Jews. Sometimes we find a Jewish name and call them up.”
Word of mouth can be just as important, Hertz said.
“We visit one Jew, he refers us to his friends — he says, ‘You guys are amazing, my friend wants to meet you,’” Hertz said. “So, we call that friend, and he gives us a few more numbers.”
Students of the Chabad organization are not paid for their efforts and travels, Hertz said.
“We’re inspired,” he said. “It’s something I want to do. It’s animportant thing to give attention to people and listen to people. It’s a special opportunity we have.”
Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn in Jackson is the one Chabad rabbi in the state, Hertz said.
“He actually started out as a student, going place to place, before getting married and settling down in Jackson,” Hertz said. “We’re working with him, and he gave us ideas to cover the entirety of Wyoming for the one month we’re here. We’re here for the break between our studies.”
While the two rabbis had never been to Wyoming previously, other trips have been by others in the Chabad program.
“We’ve been going around for 50 years, so we can pretty much project it’s going to continue,” he said.