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The northeast corner of Temple Emanu-El in Helena, Montana, bears the Jewish calendar date 5651, which corresponds to the year 1890, when the state’s first governor, Joseph K. Toole, declared, “We lay this cornerstone to the truth.”
The ceremony attracted many of Helena’s leading citizens, Jews and non-Jews, to celebrate what clothing merchant and congregation head Herman Gans described as “a gift to ornament the city we love.”
The temple opened the following year. Twin onion domes braced a superstructure of granite, porphyry and sandstone. Workers had painted the sanctuary ceiling blue and dotted it with stars. The space was large enough to seat 500. It was the only synagogue between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, a distance of about 1,750 miles. “It was an architectural anomaly, adding greatly to the cosmopolitan image that Helena really wanted to project at the time,” says Ellen Baumler, an historian with the Montana Historical Society.
For 44 years after its opening, Temple Emanu-El stood as a monument to a thriving community in one of the diaspora’s loneliest outposts. The congregation’s merchants and financiers prospered amid their non-Jewish neighbors. But the Jewish population declined due to intermarriage and out-migration, and the synagogue closed its doors in 1935 during the Great Depression. The state of Montana bought the building for $1 and a pledge to use it for a “good and social purpose.” State government authorities sandblasted the Hebrew inscription that read “Gate to the Eternal.”
Today, the onion domes are long gone, the copper portions supposedly salvaged for use in building the State Capitol dome. The state had built three floors of offices into what was once the temple sanctuary, but the cosmetic challenges are only incidental: A new generation of Jews is seeking to reinvigorate Montana’s Jewish heritage by reacquiring the temple building from the local Catholic diocese, which bought it from the state in 1981 for use as administrative offices and placed a cross high above the front doors.
This effort is led by the Montana Jewish Project (MJP), a consortium of Jewish individuals and families in the state. MJP is trying to raise about $925,000 to buy the building and surrounding property from the Diocese of Helena before a deadline of August 31. The diocese has extended the deadline twice to give the project group enough time to gather the funding. Acquisition grants, including one for $100,000, are in the works, says MJP cofounder Rebecca Stanfel.
The group’s overall fundraising goal is $1.5 million, enough to cover the cost of purchase with money left over for Jewish-related programming—and perhaps some renovations one day. “We are looking to anchor current and future generations in the rich history of Judaism in Montana that is so often overlooked,” says Stanfel. “In this state at this time, taking the cross off and launching it again as a Jewish building is more than symbolic.”
The diocese is sympathetic. “I would love to come in here in 20 years and see it back to its original glory,” Bishop Austin Vetter said, according to the Helena Independent Record, a local newspaper. “We may have our differences, but the first thing we have in common is our human dignity.”
Jews began as peddlers in the West during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. By the time Montana struck gold in the 1860s, Jewish traders had traversed mile after mile of the Old West and well understood its dangers, both natural and human. In Montana’s mining boomtowns of Virginia City and Bannack (both now ghost towns), merchants found a brisk demand for the clothing, liquor, tobacco and dry goods they brought in via supply lines stretching from St. Louis to San Francisco.
Samuel Schwab, born in Bavaria, rode the first stagecoach from Salt Lake City to Bannack in 1863, bringing goods to sell to gold miners. Dry-goods merchant Lewis Hershfield opened a bank in Virginia City that provided important services: storing gold dust and exchanging gold for currency.
Peddling proved to be a stepping-stone to the status of merchant and provider, and eventually to storefronts along the dusty streets of frontier towns. For immigrant Jews, mostly from Germany at that point, Montana offered “a golden opportunity to…rapidly gain economic stability and prominent civic status within a single generation, which could never have happened back home,” says Baumler of the Montana Historical Society.
Sometimes the Gilded-Age plutocrats back east sent their adventure-seeking sons to oversee investments in Montana. One was Albert Joseph Seligman, who arrived in Montana in 1881 to look after his investment banking family’s interests in mining. When the Silver Panic of 1893 busted the state’s speculative economy, Seligman used his Wall Street connections to keep both Jewish and non-Jewish businesses afloat.
Not every Jew in Old West Montana was a wealthy financier. Jews mirrored non-Jews in their employment choices. Of 78 Jews listed in an 1888 survey of Helena, 14 were sales clerks, 17 were clothing merchants, four were tobacconists, one was a saloonkeeper and one was a rancher. (Though the “rancher,” Lewis Kaufman, was actually more of a meat merchant who preferred the comfort of his Helena mansion to the windswept prairie of his co-owned OH Ranch 167 miles away.)
Jews served as state representatives and city council members. Henry Lublin Frank, a successful liquor wholesaler, was mayor of Butte from 1885 to 1887. The Fligelman sisters, Frieda and Belle, were born in Helena in the 1890s to the successful proprietor of the “New York Store” and his wife. The sisters were suffragists and devoted their lives to equal rights for women and minorities.
But the Jewish population of Montana also produced its share of shady characters. “Jew Jake” Harris, born In Prussia, gambled his way through the state, shooting an opponent who brandished two razors after accusing him of cheating. According to contemporary press accounts, another gambling foe stabbed Harris with a Bowie knife on his left side. He survived, only to lose a leg later in a shootout with a deputy U.S. Marshal. He served a year in prison. “Jew Jess” was another such figure, a prostitute and drug addict skilled in pocket picking. She was said to know the law well enough to serve effectively as her own counsel in court cases.
In Butte, a “wide open” copper-mining boomtown, Ida Levy operated a prominent brothel. Two Jewish prostitutes there “practiced their trade while remaining ‘faithful’ to their religious convictions,’’ according to Pamela Wilson Tollefson, who wrote her master’s thesis at the University of Montana on Jewish life in Butte.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming historical picture of Jews in Montana is a positive one.
“Jewish residents…were not only respected but really embraced by the gentile community,” says Baumler. “Jews were lawyers, doctors, judges, bankers, merchants, service providers and business partners with non-Jews.”
Much of today’s Jewish population in Montana—which numbers up to 5,000—consists of recent arrivals seeking the same big-sky vibe as their non-Jewish counterparts: Montana’s population, now 1.1 million, has risen every year since the early 1990s. Even at the height of the COVID pandemic, between July 2020 and July 2022, Montana’s population growth was 1.7 percent, second only to Idaho at 2.9 percent. By contrast, the U.S. in general had a net population growth of 0.1 percent.
But many of today’s Jewish residents of Montana are uneasy. Part of the reason may be Montana’s location in the heart of what experts at organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center consider to be the white-supremacy heartland, which stretches from the mountainous region extending from Kalispell and the Flathead Valley in northwestern Montana to the eastern portion of Washington state, especially around Spokane—a distance of about 200 miles. Neo-Nazi Richard Butler founded Aryan Nations in the 1970s in this region outside of Hayden Lake, Idaho, holding an annual “Aryan Nations World Congress” as a recruitment tool. The organization’s goal was to create a white supremacist state in the region. Another such group, The Order, embarked on a terrorist rampage in the 1980s, culminating in the assassination of Jewish radio talk-show host Alan Berg in Denver in 1984. David Lane, who was given a life sentence for his role in the murder, authored the notorious “14 words” ( “We must secure the existence of our people and the future for white children”) in prison before dying behind bars in 2007.
More recently, professed hatred toward Jews, people of color and LGBTQ people persists as adherents reformulate recruitment and membership in the internet age: Police in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho—60 miles from the border with Montana—arrested 31 members of an extremist group, Patriot Front, on June 12. Authorities said the group was on its way to violently disrupt a Pride event at a local park. In Montana, another such group, White Lives Matter, has drawn followers to street corners with banners for what Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network describes as “racist honk-and-waves.” Stickers with swastikas have been pasted up in cities across the state, and earlier this year, a flier placed on windshields in Bozeman and Missoula bore the words: “With Jews, You Lose.”
Everyday antisemitism is reportedly a constant. Stanfel recalls her teenage son having pennies tossed at him, and being subjected to vicious Holocaust jokes at school. And earlier this summer, the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Movement announced a demonstration in Missoula that set local law enforcement and the community on edge. The net result, however, was three adherents with signs in front of a mall. They live-streamed the event and then disbanded as a fierce rain-and-hail storm pelted the area.
In the face of this antisemitism, non-Jews in Montana have stepped up. A rash of racist and antisemitic incidents in Billings in 1995 led to formation of “Not in Our Town,” a movement aimed at expressing solidarity among all residents regardless of religion or color. A PBS documentary Not in Our Town aired later the same year. And in addition to the Catholic diocese, leaders of the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches in the state have supported the Montana Jewish Project’s plans to purchase the synagogue building in Helena.
The Lutheran Synod in Montana has donated more than $10,000, and other church organizations have raised smaller amounts. The state’s Lutheran Bishop, Laurie Jungling, didn’t mince words about antisemitism. “We know that throughout its history, the Christian church and its members have done deep harm to the Jewish people and their communities,” she wrote in a fundraising appeal in April this year. “This mistreatment is seen especially in Martin Luther’s horrific diatribes and violent recommendations against the Jews in his later writings, in the silence of the Christian church (including Lutherans) during the Holocaust and its aftermath, and in too much overt and subtle bigoted behavior by Christians everywhere including here in Montana.”
“In seeing how our Jewish neighbors love and cherish their own tradition, we as Christians may renew our love and understanding of our own faith and tradition,” Jungling concluded.
Stanfel called the support “humbling and heartwarming,” Of the motivation of church groups, Stanfel said: “Partly they want to build acceptance for Judaism; partly they want to support a more diverse Montana; and partly I think they recognize past errors.”
Combating antisemitism “was a motivating factor from the start” in reviving the synagogue, says Stanfel. “We want to partner with schools and build interfaith relationships [with churches] to try and stem the rising tide of antisemitism.’’Planners hope to rent out the bottom two floors and use the top floors as headquarters for a statewide Jewish community center and historical exhibit.
Montana Jewish Project organizers hope that dispelling ignorance about Jews will help combat white supremacy. The space may also be used for Jewish history classes or Torah study.
To lessen antisemitism among non-Jews, Stanfel says, the center could create an easy-to-use classroom unit that covers the basics of Judaism and antisemitism. The Jewish history of Montana would be part of the lesson. “We want to help make it easier to be Jewish in Montana,” she says.