MONTANA JEWISH PROJECT COMPLETES PURCHASE OF MONTANA’S OLDEST SYNAGOGUE
Helena, MT— After nearly a year of fundraising, the Montana Jewish Project (MJP) bought back Helena’s Temple Emanu-El and will return it to Jewish use for the first time since 1935.
“We are thrilled to have succeeded in this monumental effort,” said Rebecca Stanfel, president of the Montana Jewish Project’s Board.
Roman Catholic Bishop Austin Vetter played a key role in the sale. With his staff, he met with MJP for months, as MJP renegotiated from buying historic Temple Emanu-El and surrounding properties to buying only the synagogue.
“It’s been my pleasure to work with the Montana Jewish Project through this process. It’s vital for all of us that people of faith focus on the good that we can do together instead of our differences. My prayers are with them and Montana’s Jewish Community for God’s blessing in this new endeavor,” Bishop Vetter said. MJP will also lease the open lawn next door to the historic synagogue for community use.
“We are so grateful for Bishop Austin Vetter for his enthusiasm and support. He worked with us for many months, and extended closing deadlines twice.
“We are also grateful to the more than 2,000 donors from Helena and across Montana and the United States who made this dream a reality. Without their generosity and their gifts that ranged from $5 to $100,000, we know we would not be here today. We’re also thankful for the interfaith support we received from many Montana synagogues and churches, as well as from Montana businesses. This was truly a community-wide effort,” Stanfel said.
The Montana Jewish Project was founded by members of Helena’s Jewish community over a year ago and entered into a landmark purchase agreement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena on November 10, 2021, for the historic building once known as Temple Emanu-El. The group plans a re-dedication and celebration at the synagogue later in the fall.
“We know our work is only just starting,” said Julie Bir, member of the Montana Jewish Project’s Board of Directors. “We can’t wait to fulfill our mission: to create a statewide center for Jewish life, enhance interfaith opportunities, combat antisemitism in Montana schools, and bring to reality the Jewish value of “repairing the world.”
MJP has big plans. Once funding is secured, MJP will hire a traveling director of programming who will oversee education, speakers, cultural events, and foster a sense of larger community for all of Montana’s Jews. In addition, MJP will create curricula about the history of Jewish Montana and the realities of being Jewish in the Treasure State for schools across the state. Returning to the first home for Jewish life in Montana will anchor future generations to the rich history of Judaism in the state.
“Helena was one of only four state capitals in the nation without a synagogue or Jewish Center,” Bir said. “We’ve just changed that. We’re also excited for Helena’s Jewish community to have a permanent place to meet for religious observance, cultural events, and community-growing.”
“Now that we have the building as our base, we want to pivot and immediately transition to helping Jewish life in Montana thrive,” said Stanfel. “Our all-volunteer-led organization launched programming already, but it’s important we hire a professional who can oversee this and create new cultural pathways for Montana Jews to connect to their traditions. Now that we have this incredible building, it is essential we keep community support.”
In 1891, Helena’s Jewish community-built Temple Emanu-El. The cornerstone is inscribed with 5651, that year in the Hebrew calendar. The synagogue’s first president described the new building as a “gift to ornament the city we love.” But in 1935, during the Great Depression, the congregation gave Temple Emanu-El to the state of Montana for $1, asking only that it be used for a “good and social purpose.” The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena bought it to house administrative offices in 1981. In the past year, the bishop streamlined administrative operations, consolidating three separate office locations into the new Center for Catholic Life in Helena. Temple Emanu-El is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We welcome all our supporters, the Jewish community across Montana and here in Helena, and the broader community to celebrate with us,” said Bir. “We have worked to carry forward the legacy of Montana’s earliest Jewish settlers, who built Temple Emanu-El despite the obstacles they faced.”
A ceremonial signing will take place at 10 AM, August 26 at the former Temple Emanu-El (515 North Ewing) with Bishop Vetter. Members of the media and the public are invited to attend. Weather permitting, this will be outside the building.
Posted on August 26, 2022, in 2022, 5782, August, Cheshvan, Events, Ram's Horn, Tikkun Olam. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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