MISSOULA – Rabbi Mark Kula has lent religious insights and guidance to the University of Montana campus for the past three years, but said he really felt part of the Griz family last month when fielding prayer requests for a successful outcome to the Brawl of the Wild football game.
Although Kula claims no special rabbinical powers for the resounding UM victory, it was nice to lend whatever help he could to his adopted community.
“Maybe I will get a little credit,” he said smiling.
Kula moved from Miami to Missoula in 2018, when his wife Coreen Duffy accepted a position at UM as director of choral activities and assistant professor of music. They knew where Montana was geographically, but their knowledge of Missoula was sketchy at best.
“It happened abruptly and quickly, and we decided well, let’s go,” Kula said of the decision to move with their two young children from the south Florida coast. “We love it here.”
In addition to dusting off his decades-old, barely worn winter coat, Kula had to restart his career, which included serving 30 years as a cantor and rabbi. His first step was to get a pulse on Jewish life at UM by reaching out to Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization.
When it came to Jewish activity on the UM campus, the report was a bit bleak.
“Really nothing organized had been going on for years, so I started to slowly build stuff up,” Kula said of his volunteer work on campus. “We started hosting Friday night dinners of eight to 12 people, Jewish and non, praying and blessing the bread.”
As his reputation spread – President Seth Bodnar soon began calling him the “Campus Rabbi” – Kula was enlisted to help with diversity efforts and to serve as a guest speaker at campus events.
“Getting Judaism on the campus radar,” as Kula puts it.
This included fielding questions from prospective Jewish students and their parents about life at UM.
“One of the unique and positive things about being here is the proactive commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Kula said. “In the past three years, it’s been a priority of this administration and it’s filtered throughout campus.”
When not at UM, Kula travels the state performing Sabbath services and speaking at faith events. He served for a while as part-time rabbi for Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman and recently was hired by UCC Missoula to bring a Jewish voice to the pastoral team. Because there are only a handful of rabbis in the state there is plenty of rabbinical work to go around, he said.
Stacie Craig, a graduate student in anthropology, said it can be difficult being a Jew, and in her case keeping kosher, in a community with such a small Jewish presence. Having Kula on campus as a spiritual counselor and friend has been extremely helpful – particularly in the rare instances of anti-Semitism in the community.
“He has brought a valuable Jewish perspective to UM,” Craig said.
This includes making sure Jewish holidays like Yom Kipper and Rosh Hashanah are celebrated on campus. At 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2, Kula and several students will host a Hanukkah celebration on the steps of Main Hall. As he did in 2019, Bodnar will light a candle on the menorah and all are invited to participate.
“The students are excited to do this,” Kula said.
In the very near future, Kula and Craig hope to formally launch a Jewish student life club, which will be affiliated with Zootown Jews, a community group led by Kula that meets for cultural, social and religious activities. He ultimately would like to open an ecumenical center on campus for all religious faiths.
The transition from the synagogue world to his current work has been interesting and rewarding, Kula said, and he hopes his efforts to enlighten others about Judaism helps not just Jewish students but the community at large.
“In the end,” he said, “it’s about enhancing faithfulness in us all.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM strategic communications director, 406-243-5659, email@example.com.