Montana Jewish Project Reclaims Helena’s Historic Emanu-El Temple

Helena's Temple Emanu-El; Photo by Evan Jones, Montana Jewish Project

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By AARON PARRETT

Even though the Jewish community has had a presence in Helena, Mont., since its beginnings in the early 1860s as a mining town, the city has not had a community center or synagogue since 1935. 

Rebecca Stanfel, Board President of the Montana Jewish Project, hopes to change that with the November 10 signing of a purchase agreement to re-acquire Helena’s historic Temple Emanu-El (located just east of the Cathedral) from the Helena Catholic Diocese. 

“Our ambition is to not just restore the building as a synagogue, but to establish the first Jewish cultural center in Montana—really, in this part of the pacific northwest,” said Stanfel. “And we have been extremely excited by the passion with which broader community has embraced and supported this project in Helena. The level of excitement beyond the Jewish community is inspirational.” 

Stanfel noted this is “a unique opportunity to create a permanent space for Helena’s Jewish community in the very space the founders of that community built in 1891.” 

The cornerstone of the original building was laid by Montana’s governor himself, Joseph K. Toole, and bears the Hebrew year 5651. By 1935, the Jewish community could no longer maintain the building and sold it to the State of Montana for $1, with the stipulation that the building “only be used for good and social purpose,” according to Stanfel.

Eventually the state sold it to the Catholic Bishop of Helena, and the church has used it for various Catholic social services and administration. 

“The Roman Catholic Bishop of Helena has been an incredible steward of the building, and we are grateful to his team for working so closely with us to make this dream one step closer to an exciting reality,” said Stanfel.

In the effort to realize that long-standing dream, The Montana Jewish Project (a community nonprofit) has launched a $1.3 million capital campaign to fund the purchase and cost of renovations for the Temple Emanu-El building.

“We have some serious fundraising goals to meet along the way,” Stanfel said. “We need to have $650,000 by February 28, 2022, at which point we could extend the closing date to July 31, 2022. So we have about a half a year to come up with the funds, but we hope to have 60 percent raised by that February date.” 

“[This project] excited all of us immediately because of the importance of the Jewish and Catholic dialogue together,” said Bishop Austin Anthony Vetter. “We thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Jewish community would be able to get its synagogue back?” 

The overarching goal of the Montana Jewish Project extends beyond the building as simply a synagogue. 

“Helena is one of [three] state capitals in the nation without a synagogue or Jewish Center,” said Mimi Wolok, a member of the Montana Jewish Project Board of Directors. Pierre, S.D., and Carson City, Nev., do not have synagogues either. “We want to change that and re-create a center for Judaism, Tikkun olam (to repair the world), and broader civic engagement for Helena and for all of Montana.”

Because Tikkun olam is a guiding core value for the project, board members envision acquiring the building as an opportunity to partner with other nonprofits and Montana groups with social justice goals and initiatives.

One Jewish community member on the board, Evan Jones, said he conceives of the space as a center that allows for spiritual and cultural community. “I like to think of how this could create a space for mental health as a community resource, the kind of interfaith place where anyone can go to just feel calm,” said Jones. 

He emphasized the historic dimension of the building. “I’d much rather see this space reserved as a cultural center than to see it turned into another Air B&B.”

While the Montana Jewish Project’s acquisition of the Emanu-El Temple marks an important date worthy of celebration by the entire Helena and greater Montana community, the event is especially poignant for Jews who, for almost 100 years, have lacked a community center of their own in the state’s capital city. 

“It’s really important in times of growing bigotry and anti-Semitism to just have an open presence,” Stanfel said. “It’s important to be able to exist openly and to have a place to go.” MSN

If you are interested in learning more about the Montana Jewish Project or contributing to this historic effort to restore a cultural and spiritual landmark in Helena, please visit their website, www.montanajewishproject.com



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