Makom Community Spotlight: Montana Jewish Project

The Montana Jewish Project (MJP) is a new organization that is already making a big difference in fostering Jewish life and connections across Montana. Founded in 2021, MJP worked to buy back Helena’s historic Temple Emanu-El, Montana’s first synagogue, and return it to Jewish ownership for the first time since 1935. Since then, they have done incredible work organizing across the state and building vibrant Jewish Life in Helena.

Executive Director and Makom Fellow Rebecca Stanfel shared: “We’re proud of our 3,000 small donors—Jewish and non-Jewish—who helped make this dream a reality. Our effort sparked interest and support from around the world. MJP headquarters its statewide Jewish community center within Temple Emanu-El, and this landmark historic building anchors our present-day, growing Montana Jewish community to the rich history of Jewish life in the Treasure State and the values of those who built this synagogue. But we are about much more than a building! Since we moved back into our historic home in October 2022, we’ve offered over 20 programs that directly connect to the needs of Jews in southwest Montana and across the state (and have done so as an almost entirely volunteer-led organization). Words can’t describe our joy at celebrating Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah with Jews from Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, and small towns like Choteau. We’ve also organized statewide events including an Introduction to Jewish Spiritual Direction, a Vigil for Peace with six of Montana’s rabbis, and just last week, a celebration of Hanukkah in story and song with Montana rabbis and our cantorial soloist, Amber Ikeman.”

Rebecca believes that community-building work is more important now than ever: “Jews in Montana have faced an unprecedented rise in antisemitism—even before the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks. Antisemitic incidents tripled between 2020 and 2023, and individual congregations and leaders have faced threats. This prompted MJP to launch and coordinate the Montana Safety and Security Task Force to help congregations and communities around the state improve security for their communities.

As important as security is, we also believe it is only through education and outreach—by connecting to the broader Montana world—that we can change the reality of rising hate. We are especially proud to have recently sent our second set of free Hanukkah curriculum boxes to 50 fourth-grade public school teachers who requested them. In addition to sharing non-religious materials and some Hanukkah joy, we center this lesson plan around building acceptance for all children in the classroom and working to end bullying in our schools. Most of these curriculum boxes went to small towns in Montana (including some with single-room schools for all grades), and a third went to communities on our Native American Reservations. We also work with non-Jewish partners who share our values. For while antisemitism and hate of all kinds are on the rise, we also benefit from being welcomed fully in the broader community. It’s easy to focus only on the negative. But Helena and all of Montana have helped us see that most in Montana are eager to work with us on projects that connect us across our traditions.”

 When asked about her experience in Makom, Rebecca shared: “I’m only in my first year as a Makom fellow, and I’ve already learned so much! It’s invaluable to be part of a cohort of other leaders from small town or rural Jewish communities. While there are many differences between Honolulu and southern New York (where two other Makom fellows work), we also share both goals and challenges. Just knowing this has been helpful—and has helped my work feel less isolating and more vibrant.

Here are three specific things I’ve learned. First, asking community members to participate and volunteer doesn’t just make life easier for the core volunteers at MJP. It’s actually vital to building a resilient and diverse community. It’s only when our community members help out in whatever capacity they have that they will feel truly invested in what we’re creating together. Second, while I mentioned all the programs we’ve held in our first year, that’s actually not a good metric of our success. Do our programs remain core to our values and vision? Are we doing too much? These are more important questions to ask than some version of “How much did we do in a year?” Third, learning about relational Judaism has transformed how we think about our goals for next year. Rather than try and present different options that appeal to different segments of our community, we are instead meeting one-on-one with community members and sharing our stories. We are learning what is important for them to see happen at MJP—and how they want to help make this happen.