Jewish community buys back first synagogue in Montana from Catholic Diocese

After lengthy fundraising campaign, local nonprofit purchases two-story Helena synagogue for undisclosed amount; it was originally sold for $1 in 1935

Rebecca Stanfel, board president of the Montana Jewish Project, shakes hands with Bishop Austin Vetter of the Helena Diocese during a ceremonial signing of the building over to the Jewish community. (Screenshot: Facebook Live, via JTA)
Rebecca Stanfel, board president of the Montana Jewish Project, shakes hands with Bishop Austin Vetter of the Helena Diocese during a ceremonial signing of the building over to the Jewish community. (Screenshot: Facebook Live, via JTA)

JTA — The Jewish community in Montana closed a deal Thursday to reacquire the state’s first synagogue, built in 1891, returning it to Jewish ownership for the first time in 87 years.

The Montana Jewish Project, a nonprofit organization, purchased the two-story Helena synagogue for an undisclosed amount from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena after a nine-month fundraising effort to turn the space into a Jewish community center.

The group is not planning to hire a rabbi or build a congregation, but it will offer holiday celebrations and other community-wide events for the roughly 100 Jews it estimates lives in the state’s capital city.

Rebecca Stanfel, the group’s president, said now that the funding has been secured, the community will “foster a sense of larger community for all of Montana’s Jews” by hiring a traveling director of programming to oversee education, speakers and cultural events.

“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,’” Julie Bir, a board member, told ABC affiliate Montana Right Now.

Montana is home to an estimated 1,500 Jews, out of a population of just over 1 million. While there is a Jewish member of the state legislature, a handful of Reform congregations scattered across the state and Chabad emissaries who are active in real life and on social media, the state lacks some of the Jewish infrastructure present in larger communities.

“Helena was one of only four state capitals in the nation without a synagogue or Jewish Center,” Bir said in a statement. “We’ve just changed that. We’re also excited for Helena’s Jewish community to have a permanent place to meet for religious observance, cultural events and community-growing.”

Built to accommodate the growing Jewish community out west during the Gold Rush, Temple Emanu-El could accommodate 500 worshippers in its sanctuary. By 1935, as the Jewish population dwindled and the Great Depression took hold, synagogue leadership sold the organ and pews to Seventh Day Adventists, and the building was sold to the state of Montana for $1 later that year. It became an office for the Department of Public Welfare, and religious symbols in the building were removed, including copper “onion domes” painted with Stars of David and a Hebrew inscription above the entrance that said “Gate to the eternal,” which was sandblasted.

Temple Emanu-El was the first synagogue in Montana, established during the Gold Rush of the 19th century. (Montana Jewish Project, via JTA)

In 1981, the state sold the building to the Catholic Diocese, which the Montana Jewish Project says has been a “good steward” of the building. The synagogue was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

“It’s been my pleasure to work with the Montana Jewish Project through this process,” said Bishop Austin Vetter, leader of the Diocese of Helena, in a statement. “It’s vital for all of us that people of faith focus on the good that we can do together instead of our differences. My prayers are with them and Montana’s Jewish Community for God’s blessing in this new endeavor.”

Vetter and his staff met with the Montana Jewish Project for months, negotiating and renegotiating the sale and extending the closing deadline twice.

A ceremonial signing took place Friday and the building will be rededicated as a Jewish institution this fall.

“The past months have sometimes felt like pushing a boulder up a mountain trail,” Montana Jewish Project leaders wrote on their website. “Without the incredible community support we received, MJP would not be reclaiming this building.”

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