Helena community packs site of state's first synagogue to celebrate Hanukkah

Hanukkah celebration with Montana Jewish Project
Posted at 5:35 PM, Dec 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-20 10:37:20-05

HELENA — Sunday evening marked the beginning of Hanukkah. This year in Helena, the celebration of the Festival of Lights is extra special for Jewish families and the community at large. After 87 years those of the Jewish faith in Helena now have a place where they can celebrate their religion in Helena, and share their faith with their community.

Well over 100 people of all faiths packed the historic Temple Emanu-El building to celebrate the occasion with the Montana Jewish Project. Prior to the lighting of the menorah, people enjoyed food, playing games of dreidel and an abundance of smiles and laughter.

“My favorite part of Hannuka is being with my mom and dad and my brother,” said young Helena resident Goodby Warner. “And lighting candles.”

Hanukkah celebrations in Helena are nothing new, but Sunday was historic. This year marks the first Jewish community celebration of Hannuka at the Temple Emanu-El building since 1934.

Hanukkah celebration in Helena

Built in 1891, the Temple Emanu-El was the first synagogue in Montana. It was sold in 1935 during the height of the Great Depression to the State of Montana for $1 with the caveat the building be used for a good and social purpose. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena purchased the property in 1981 for administrative offices. The Montana Jewish Project was able to reacquire the building in August of this year.

“So there has always been a Jewish community in Helena from the 1860s on. But starting in 1934 we had no permanent place to meet for anything, for religious observances, for cultural stuff, parties,” noted Montana Jewish Project Board President Rebecca Stanfel.

At its core, Hannuka celebrates freedom of religious expression. In past years Jewish services and events were held at a number of locations across Helena including the library and churches in the community. Stanfel says they’ve received amazing interfaith support over the years, but it's special to have a place designated as your own.

“So it just feels really amazing to have this place where people know okay there’s a Hanukkah party, we know where it’s going to be,” she explained.

Families celebrate Hanukkah in Helena

Jewish families MTN spoke with echoed the sentiment, with Ferron Warner noting how happy she is to have the cultural center for her boys.

“Oh my gosh, I mean I don’t think I can put it into words just how happy we are to see this community come together,” said Warner. “It’s been so great being able to have a place where we know our children can grow up knowing each other and knowing their faith and for that is something we’re very thankful for.”

The word Hanukkah means “dedication,” specifically referencing the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C. Similarly, the Montana Jewish Project is now rededicating the Temple Emanu-El building to a place honoring and preserving the Jewish faith in Helena.