The Jewish community of Helena, Montana, has officially reacquired Temple Emanu-El, 87 years after the original congregation closed its doors.
“We are thrilled to have succeeded in this monumental effort,” said Rebecca Stanfel of the Montana Jewish Project, which bought the property from the Helena Catholic Diocese.
Stanfel and Catholic Bishop Austin Vetter signed documents formalizing the acquisition in a ceremony outside the synagogue on August 19. A crowd of about 100 looked on.
“It’s vital for all of us people of faith to focus on the good we can do together instead of our differences,” said Bishop Vetter. “My prayers are with the Montana’s Jewish community for God’s blessing in this new endeavor.”
Vetter and Stanfel declined to disclose the exact purchase price—which was originally $925,000. Stanfel said the Jewish group paid a “fair price” for the building. The church will lease a lot adjacent to Emanu-El for a nominal sum.
The Moorish-style synagogue was Montana’s first, built in 1891. At the time, it was the only synagogue between Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon.
Stanfel said the new incarnation will be the focal point of an effort to reach out to the broader community, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Its rebirth comes at a time of growing antisemitism both nationwide and in Montana. The area, known as the Mountain West—Montana, Idaho and Washington state—has long been a breeding ground for white supremacists and the antisemitic Christian identity movement.
“We know our work is only starting,” said Julie Bir, a 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.’”
Jewish life in Montana dates back to at least the 1860s when Samuel Schwab, born in Bavaria, rode the first stagecoach from Salt Lake City to sell needed materials to gold miners in the boomtown of Bannack (now a ghost town). He was not alone. Dry-goods merchant Lewis Hershfield opened a bank in Virginia City (also now a ghost town), the first to convert gold dust to currency.
It was a familiar historical pattern: A sudden economic boom yielded a supply-chain vacuum that Jewish merchants were only too happy to fill. Starting as peddlers, Jews brought clothing, assorted other dry goods, liquor, tobacco and much more to the sprouting frontier towns.
Although Jewish mercantilism did at times engender antisemitism, evidence suggests relations between Jews and Gentiles in Montana was businesslike, if not outright cordial.
When a crowd of Jews and non-Jews gathered in 1890 to dedicate Temple Emanu-El, the state’s first governor, Joseph K. Toole, declared “we lay this cornerstone to the truth.”
Clothing merchant and congregation leader Herman Gans described the synagogue as “a gift to ornament the city we love.”
Gradually, the Jewish population of Montana dwindled as the Great Depression of the 1930s set in. Temple Emanu-El closed its doors in 1935. Its remaining leadership sold the property to the state for $1 on the condition it be used for a “good and social purpose.” The state used it for office space until 1981, when it sold the building to the Catholic diocese.
The attraction of Montana’s “Big Sky”open spaces and unhurried lifestyle has brought in thousands of new residents in recent decades, including Jews. The state’s Jewish population is about 1,500. Many are in interfaith marriages, which will be a focus of programming at the newly reopened synagogue.
Martha Kohl of the Montana Historical Society, who is Jewish herself and part of an interfaith marriage, is among those celebrating Temple Emanu-El’s reopening. “It is a significant building in Helena, and it is wonderful to see it returned to the Jewish community.”
This story is an update of Amid Antisemitism, Jews Seek to Buy Back Historic Synagogue, which appeared on momentmag.com in July 2022. See that story for more of the history of Montana’s Jewish community and background of the project.