06 December 2009

Montana: An officer, a dog and a rabbi ..

How does a Montana police officer communicate with his Israeli-trained sniffer dog who only understands Hebrew?

He finds a Hasidic rabbi - a rare commodity in the state - to tutor him in Hebrew.

Nu? You were expecting a joke from that headline?

The Jewish world learned about Montana in a big way back in 1993 when homes displaying a hanukiah (menorah) were broken into by vandals. Church leaders organized a successful protest by more than 10,000 city residents and business owners to display the holiday symbol in their windows to support and protect the tiny Jewish community of some 36 families.

But Jews have been in the state since the 19th century, when immigrant Jews arrived in mining towns and worked in jobs needed by the miners and townspeople. Butte had kosher markets, B'nai B'rith, a Jewish mayor and three synagogues. Helena's Temple Emanu-El (built in 1891) could seat 500 worshippers, and its cemetery has stones dating to 1866.

Today, there are many fewer Jews than in the old days, but there are now three rabbis. Two are in Bozeman, one in Whitefish - Tracing the Tribe can imagine the jokes about that one!

Eric A. Stern, of Helena, is senior counselor to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and wrote a New York Times column on the Montana rabbis and an Israeli-trained bomb-sniffing security dog.
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.

Last year, all the rabbis were at the Capitol on Chanukah to light the menorah. That's when the security officer and his dog followed the rabbi.

Amid the haggling of who gets to light the candles in which order, reports Stern, other attendees commented that a Great Falls supermarket would carry matzo on Passover and a Missoula man mentioned his pastrami shipment from Katz's Deli in New York. Things seem to be changing in Montana.

The officer and his dog watched the ceremony and the chanted Hebrew blessings.

According to Stern, the dog sat at attention, watching the ceremony with a peculiar expression on its face, a look of intense interest. After the ceremony, the officer approached the Hasidic rabbi, introduced himself and Miky, and asked some questions.

Miky was born in a Dutch animal shelter and shipped to Israel as a puppy and trained by the IDF to sniff out explosives. The Helena Police Department needed such a talented animal - the cost is around $20,000 - but learned it could import a surplus bomb dog from Israel for only the airline ticket. Miky's new home was Montana.

The problem: Miky had been trained in Hebrew and his non-Jewish handler received only a list of Hebrew commands and expressions. While Fosket tried practicing and also studying a Hebrew audio-book to learn more, Miky didn't respond or understand what he was to do.

Stern comments that Mikey was perhaps just using Fosket's bad accent as an excuse to ignore him. The officer needed a Hebrew tutor.

Lubavitch Rabbi Chaim Bruk - a recent immigrant from Brooklyn (definitely a different country than Montana!) now helps Miky and Fosket when needed. Fosket has learned to pronounce the difficult Hebrew/Yiddish "ch" (as in CHanukah, CHutzpah, CHaroset, etc.).

Happy officer, happy dog and, says Stern, the rabbi now has someone to converse with in Hebrew.

Read the happy story at the link above.

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