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Helena's Jewish community is raising funds to buy the state's oldest synagogue

Temple Emanu-El was built in Helena in 1890 to serve the town's growing Jewish population.
Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives
Temple Emanu-El was built in Helena in 1890 to serve the town's growing Jewish population.

Helena’s Jewish community has been without a local synagogue for decades. Fundraising is underway to buy back a synagogue that’s been owned by the Catholic Diocese since the 1980s.

“When you walked into this building in 1891, you were walking into a very different internal structure," says Montana Jewish Project co-founder Rebecca Stanfel as she walks through Temple Emanu-El in Helena. "As soon as you walked in, there was ceilings that were 86 feet tall."

Temple Emanu-El is the oldest synagogue in Montana and was the first synagogue built between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, 120 years ago.

“The Jewish community were among the first to come to Helena in the 1860s," Stanfel says. "They were a large part of the community. At one point in the 1870s or ‘80s, 20% of the merchants in town were Jewish.”

According to Montana Historical Society research, the Jewish congregation made the difficult decision to sell the building to the state of Montana for one dollar after the Great Depression.

The building was converted into a three-story office building and later sold to the Helena Catholic Diocese, which until recently used it as office space.

Stanfel and others in Helena’s Jewish community jumped at the opportunity to buy the building when they heard last spring that the Catholic Diocese would be moving out and would be willing to sell the building for less than market value.

“Our vision is to use the building as it now exists and to grow and to build from there,” Stanfel says. “So ultimately, do we want to carve back out a sanctuary? Absolutely. Is it going to be one giant space with 86-foot-high ceilings? No.” 

jewish center.jpg
Evan Jones

The Montana Jewish Project signed an agreement with the Catholic Diocese of Helena in November to acquire the building. The group is now trying to raise $1.5 million to cover all associated costs. The plan is to turn it into a Jewish Community Center that can host religious celebrations, and cultural and educational events.

The group must raise 65% of the cost by the end of February.

Donna Breitbart is on the board of the Montana Jewish Project. She moved to Montana from New York City, which is home to the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel. She says a cultural center in Helena would help strengthen the already vibrant local Jewish community.

“I love Helena, it’s such a warm and welcoming community," Breitbart says. "But there is that definite something missing of that other connection.”

Breitbart imagines Jewish ceremonies, book clubs, cooking classes and a variety of other events will take place at the center and will be open to all.

Methodist Reverend Daniel Viehland, who attended a recent fundraiser for the new center, says the historic temple should be returned to Jewish hands. He hopes others can learn more about Judaism through the community center.

“It’s really, really important, I think, in light of the historic and continuing anti-Semitism, that there’s a place people can to learn more about their Jewish neighbors,” Viehland says.

Stanfel, the co-founder of the Montana Jewish Project, agrees. She hopes education and connection can combat that.

“Our grounding principle is two Hebrew words: ‘tikkun olam,’ and that means ‘to repair the world,'" she says. "We want to be working with people and organizations who every day, in a little way, are making the world a better place."

The Montana Jewish Project hopes to close on acquiring the synagogue by June.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.