Montana Jewish Project welcoming public to community celebration in Helena

Stanfel Jewish Project
Temple Emanu-El
Temple Emanu-El
Temple Emanu-El
Temple Emanu-El
Posted at 8:03 AM, Oct 10, 2022

HELENA — In August, the Montana Jewish Project finished its acquisition of the historic Temple Emanu-El building in Helena, site of Montana’s oldest synagogue. Now, they’re preparing for the next steps in their mission to serve the Jewish community – and the broader community.

“It has been an incredibly busy time; it has been an incredibly exciting time,” said Rebecca Stanfel, who chairs the Montana Jewish Project board and is currently serving as director in a volunteer capacity.

The last two weeks included Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish new year – and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Stanfel said the days in between, called the Days of Awe, are a time for reflection.

“We’ve been using that time as an organization to think about who do we want to be, how are we going to best serve our mission, how are we going to best use the resources we have?” she said.

Temple Emanu-El
Stained glass in the historic Temple Emanu-El building in Helena, site of Montana's first synagogue.

Stanfel said they’re currently making some minor repairs to the building’s roof to get ready for winter. They’ve set up a community room that will be used for events. They’re also starting a library of Jewish resources and collecting artifacts.

In addition, MJP is working on lesson plans to be made available for Montana schools. They also hope to open the building for school groups to tour.

Stanfel said they take their role seriously, at a time when antisemitic incidents continue to occur.

“We are very mindful of our mission which is to foster Jewish connections around Montana, and also to build awareness, to educate in the goal of fostering more acceptance,” she said.

Temple Emanu-El
The historic Temple Emanu-El building in Helena, now back in Jewish use after decades. A cross and coat of arms that marked its use by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena were removed Oct. 5, 2022.

Stanfel said they’re grateful to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, which owned and maintained the building for years before selling it to MJP. On Wednesday, a construction crew removed the cross and diocese coat of arms that had been on the front of the building.

“Very respectfully,” said Stanfel. “We plan to use the cross as part of our historical exhibit about the history of the community and the history of the building, because they were such good stewards of the building the whole way along.”

Now, MJP is ready to welcome the public. On Sunday, they will hold a community celebration, to officially reopen the building.

“It wasn’t a public building, so people really want to get inside and see it, and to see what they helped contribute to returning to Jewish use,” Stanfel said.

Temple Emanu-El
Stained glass in the historic Temple Emanu-El building in Helena, site of Montana's first synagogue.

From 4 to 5 p.m., they’ll give tours of the building. Starting at 5, they’ll begin a celebration of Sukkot, a Jewish harvest festival. It’s marked by construction of a sukkah, a temporary outdoor structure, covered with branches.

“It’s supposed to remind people of the time when the Israelites were wandering in the desert for 40 years from Egypt to make their way to Israel, but it’s also such a great holiday for the present day, when we have a crisis of housing here in Helena,” said Stanfel. “It connects also to us returning the building to Jewish use, because it’s really a holiday about return.”

They will also hang a mezuzah – a decorative item containing a scroll with Hebrew verses, which marks a building as a Jewish home. It will be placed on the front door of the Temple Emanu-El building.

Stanfel said everyone – both Jewish and non-Jewish – is invited to the celebration.