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As a kid, I was fascinated by the existence of Jews in remote places.
From our apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I scoured the pages of Nathan Ausubel’s Pictorial History of the Jewish People. Jews, it seemed, were everywhere, from the Falashas of Ethiopia to the “Cave Dwellers” of the Atlas Mountains and the “Mountain Jews” of the Caucasus.
Indeed, here at home, there are Jews in all 50 states—even remote Alaska was a destination for Jewish fur traders in the 1800s, as Moment reported in 2012. Many newly arrived Jewish immigrants put peddler sacks on a wagon (or their backs) and hit the road—if they found a hospitable place in need of a store, they tapped into Jewish supply lines in big cities and settled in. It was one thing to venture through rural North Carolina or Virginia, and quite another to trek from San Francisco or St. Louis all the way to Montana. Yet, a Jewish merchant was on the first stagecoach from Salt Lake City to Montana, in 1863, and a synagogue with seating for 500 opened in Helena in 1891.
The original Temple Emanu-El closed its doors in 1935 as the area’s Jewish population dwindled amid the Great Depression. Now a local group, the Montana Jewish Project, is fundraising to buy the vacant structure and some surrounding property. The goal is to raise $925,000 for the purchase by August 31, with a total open-ended goal of $1.5 million. The story of this synagogue is my latest for Moment.
The project is led by Rebecca Stanfel. Now 50, Stanfel grew up Catholic in an academic family. She met her husband Jay Weiner, a Conservative Jew, while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. After marriage, Stanfel inched toward Judaism but did not convert until being diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a rare inflammatory disease, in 2004.
Stanfel converted into an uncertain time for Jews in Montana, where antisemitism has lurked for decades. One frightening incident, covered extensively by Moment, unfolded in the mountain resort town of Whitefish in 2016. The case revolved around infamous white supremacist Richard Spencer, his parents—who own property in Whitefish—and a Jewish realtor. A firestorm of antisemitic epithets and threats ensued, some of them labeling Jews “a vicious, evil race of hate-filled psychopaths.” Stanfeld and others hope that repurchasing the synagogue will be an important way to combat antisemitism in the region.
Rural America has long been a mixed bag for Jews, who historically have been concentrated more in cities. (Though this may be changing, as Noah Phillips’ recent story on the resurgence of North American Jewish agriculture explores.) Among other things, Moment is a great place to read reporting on Jews in far-flung places, whether they be residents of traditional long-term communities or more recent arrivals.