RETURNING THE HISTORIC HELENA SYNAGOGUE TO JEWISH USE, BY REBECCA STANFEL
I’m writing to you in my capacity as president of the Montana Jewish Project. This Helena-based non-profit has been working for the past seven months to re-acquire Helena’s historic synagogue and return it to Jewish use. Today, we signed a sale purchase agreement with the Roman Catholic Bishop of Helena, who has used the historic synagogue for administrative offices since 1981 but no longer has need of it. This agreement is a milestone, but only a first step.
Many native Montanans don’t know about the state’s rich history of Jewish life. Helena’s early Jews built Temple Emanu-El in 1891. The cornerstone with the Hebrew date (5651) was laid by Montana’s Governor Toole in a huge gathering that drew crowds from across the Northwest. In his speech, congregation president Herman Gans described the majestic building on Ewing Street as a “gift to ornament the city we love.” Temple Emanu-El’s congregation were early adopters of Reform Judaism and hired a Rabbi, who later led New York’s largest Reform synagogue.
Unfortunately, two years later, the Panic of 1893 cratered Montana’s economy. The Jewish community managed to hang on to Temple Emanu-El but couldn’t afford salaries, so lay leaders took over services.
In 1935, the Depression continued Montana’s economic decline, and meanwhile the local Jewish population had also dwindled. Recognizing they could no longer maintain the building, the congregation “sold” the synagogue to the state for $1, asking only that it be used for a “good and social purpose.” The state converted the once-38-foot-high sanctuary into two floors of social services offices, and a basement of classrooms became a third floor of offices. “De-sacralizing” the building for government use included removing its distinctive onion domes and the Hebrew inscription “Gate to the Eternal” from the front. In 1981, the state sold the building to the Roman Catholic Diocese.
Now in 2021, Bishop Vetter is moving into new headquarters, and he recognized the importance of returning the building to Jewish life. We reached out to him, and we are overjoyed to have signed a contract to buy Temple Emanu-El.
Our vision is to create the first Jewish cultural center in Montana, also potentially serving Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska. Helena’s Jewish community has been growing steadily, but we recognize that it is small, and our members approach Judaism in different ways. Rather than attempt to form one congregation from the small many, our founding goal is to establish a center for Jewish life, culture, and education that radiates beyond Helena. I’ve been working with the JCC Association of North America for ideas for future programming, education, and events that will benefit all of Montana’s Jewish communities. We also will have space available for regular services for Helena’s Jews. We envision Jewish cooking classes and book groups, education for children and adults, and speakers on Jewish history and ethics.
We’d like to explore the possibility of collaborating with different Jewish communities around the state to join you online for services. For example, my family have long been members of Beth Shalom in Bozeman, and we plan to remain so. This project should not replace or erode the vibrant collaboration among Montana’s Jewish communities; rather it should add something new that will enhance Jewish life in Montana.
We also want to continue the legacy of Temple Emanu-El. Even in 1935, at its lowest point, the congregation donated the synagogue’s pews to the African Baptist Church across Helena, looking outward to find where they could help. Our core value is tikkun olam, and we will partner with other organizations that share this mission.
Right now, we’re focused on raising the funds to complete the purchase of the building, but we’re also working hard to lay groundwork for connecting with like-minded partners. Whether it is by providing the space for after-school youth mental health groups, sharing office space with other non-profits that value acceptance, offering eldercare, making our space available for MAJCO or Hadassah meetings, or hosting open cultural and educational events, we envision active collaboration with our partners to meet community needs. We are also consulting with Montana historians to create an exhibition open to the public that celebrates the unique history of Jewish life in Montana and to inform our consideration of the synagogue as an historical treasure.
Judaism puts its focus on community before buildings, and in our case, we have come to realize these are inextricably connected here in Helena, where we have been homeless. We see Temple Emanu-El as a living symbol, one that connects Montana’s past with our growing present Jewish population and with our future. Consider: Montana is one of only two states that does not have a Jewish center or synagogue in its capital. Montana’s politics have taken an alarming shift. Anti-Semitism is on the rise (for example. the neo-Nazi campaign in Whitefish and anti-Semitic leafleting in Bozeman. We believe that re-acquiring and openly existing in our historic home as Montana’s first Jewish cultural center is a powerful action we can take to counter these forces.
My board members and I would like to get your feedback and ideas for the Montana Jewish Project. We hope we can earn your trust and council on how best to nurture the project and grow together in our vision.
May we meet with you in the coming weeks? What is the most convenient way for you that we can begin this conversation? Phone? Video conference? Sitting down to coffee in your city?
Rebecca Stanfel, President
Montana Jewish Project
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