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Jewish community, Catholic Diocese working on future of historic Helena synagogue

Temple Emanu-El Deal
Temple Emanu-El
Temple Emanu-El Historic
Temple Emanu-El Window
Temple Emanu-El Plaque
Temple Emanu-El Cornerstone
Posted at 12:12 PM, Nov 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-12 14:13:16-05

HELENA — For the last 40 years, a stone building on Ewing Street has housed offices for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena. But when it first opened in 1891, it was Temple Emanu-El, the first Jewish synagogue in Montana. Now, a new agreement could once again lead to the transfer of the building to the Jewish community.

“Many times, I have driven by this building and sat out in front of my car and imagined what it would be like if it was returned to Jewish use,” said Rebecca Stanfel.

That possibility is more than just imagination now for Stanfel. She and other community members have put together the Montana Jewish Project, a new nonprofit, in hopes of facilitating a purchase of the building.

Temple Emanu-El
The offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena are housed in the former Temple Emanu-El, Montana's first synagogue.

On Thursday, Stanfel sat down with Bishop Austin Vetter, the leader of the diocese, to ceremonially sign an agreement. It commits the diocese to sell the building to the Montana Jewish Project once they secure the needed funds.

Discussions began in April, when the diocese was planning to move its offices – along with several partner Catholic organizations – to the newly constructed Seeley Building, downtown on Last Chance Gulch. That meant they had to begin planning for the future of their current building.

Community members began facilitating conversations between the diocese and people like Stanfel who were interested in bringing the building back to its historic roots.

“That excited all of us immediately, because of the importance of the Jewish and Catholic dialogue together,” said Vetter. “We thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Jewish community would be able to get its synagogue back? And so, that’s really how it started, with small conversations, and the support started to grow one by one, until the reality today.”

The interfaith cooperation was symbolized from the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, when Vetter opened with a Catholic blessing calling for friendship and unity, and the Jewish Project members followed it with a prayer called the “shehechiyanu,” which is used to mark something happening for the first time.

The former Temple Emanu-El was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. A report by historian Ellen Baumler, included as part of that listing, lays out the building’s history.

Temple Emanu-El Historic
A 19th-century image of Temple Emanu-El, Montana's first synagogue, from the Helena Board of Trade. (Courtesy: Ellen Baumler)

Helena had a thriving Jewish community dating back to the pioneer era. It included many of the city’s most successful early business leaders. According to Baumler, a Jewish congregation formed, but remained without a place of worship for years. After recruiting a rabbi, they began working to build a temple.

In 1890, Montana Gov. Joseph Toole laid the cornerstone for Temple Emanu-El. The congregation said their purpose for the building was to “ornament the city.” The synagogue was dedicated the next year, and it continued to serve the Jewish community for the next four decades.

Baumler said the congregation began to shrink due to economic difficulties. By the 1930s, they were no longer able to maintain the building. In 1937, they sold the temple to the state of Montana, on the condition that it be used for a “social purpose.”

The state removed some of the characteristic religious elements of the building, including two copper domes and a Hebrew inscription reading “Gate to the Eternal.” They eventually used it for public welfare offices.

By 1981, the state was no longer actively using the building, and the diocese purchased it. Stanfel said the diocese has done a great job of preserving it over the years.

There are still some visible signs of the building’s history, including stained glass windows and the cornerstone, which bears the date 5651 – the year of its construction, according to the Jewish calendar.

Temple Emanu-El Window
A stained glass window is one of the historic remnants of the former Temple Emanu-El, Montana's first synagogue, which currently holds the offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena.

“I like to think of this building as a living symbol of Jewish life, of vital and flourishing Jewish life here in Helena and all across Montana,” said Stanfel.

Stanfel said the Montana Jewish Project doesn’t plan to immediately convert the building back into a synagogue. Their goal is to make it a cultural and community center that will serve as an anchor for the Jewish community and share information about Jewish culture in Montana.

“In the short term, what we want to do is provide space for those in the Helena Jewish community who want to use the space for religious services, cultural gatherings, Hanukkah parties, Jewish book groups, Jewish cooking groups,” she said.

She also hopes to share the space with non-Jewish groups that share their goal of “tikkun olam,” a Hebrew phrase meaning “repairing the world” and often referring to social and community action.

Mimi Wolok, also a leader with Montana Jewish Project, has been closely involved with the negotiations with the diocese. She told MTN the nonprofit is paying a small deposit now and will have several months to confirm they can secure the funding to finalize the purchase. She said the diocese has been very flexible to work with their group, including offering them the building at a lower price than it was appraised for.

Temple Emanu-El Plaque
A plaque on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena's offices marks the building's history as Temple Emanu-El, Montana's first synagogue.

While the signing of this agreement is only a first step, everyone involved with the deal is excited about the cooperation that has brought them this far.

“This deal to me feels historic, it feels significant beyond here in Helena,” said Stanfel. “His [Bishop Vetter’s] willingness to work with a fledgling nonprofit with patience and with dignity is just incredible.”

“In a society that so often just shows the divisions and the fractions that are a part of our society, what a wonderful thing to be able to finally set an example of, no, not everything has to be a division, that we can do good things together if we sit down and are creative,” said Vetter.

In addition to the diocese and its foundation, Catholic Social Services of Montana and Montana Catholic Conference are also moving to the Seeley Building – forming what Vetter calls a “Center for Catholic Life.” Leaders hope to make the move in the coming months.