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Head West, Future Jew

Who’d have thought I’d convert in Montana?

by
Rebecca Stanfel
October 22, 2021
COURTESY OF THE CHARLES J. TIPTON COLLECTION/HelenaHistory.org
Temple Emanu-El, circa 1903COURTESY OF THE CHARLES J. TIPTON COLLECTION/HelenaHistory.org
COURTESY OF THE CHARLES J. TIPTON COLLECTION/HelenaHistory.org
Temple Emanu-El, circa 1903COURTESY OF THE CHARLES J. TIPTON COLLECTION/HelenaHistory.org

Montana may be the last place you’d expect a spiritual seeker to find Judaism. But it was here in Helena, the state capital, that I found a Jewish community that fit me. And it was here, in this unlikely outpost, that I finally converted to Judaism, completing a journey that had lasted more than three decades.

In 1995, in Berkeley, Calif., I met my future husband. I was a religious seeker, and Jay, who had been raised an observant Conservative Jew, introduced me to the best of Judaism. When we went to services, the prayers in a sacred language felt right. I was familiar with liturgy and liturgical cycles from my devout Catholic childhood, but instead of the prayers and the chanting culminating in the Eucharist, which had always left me cold, in Jewish services the high point was the Torah emerging from the ark and being unwrapped. I loved this connection with the written word. Listening to the rabbi deliver a drash, I also embraced the idea that interpretation was a sacred task. What a contrast to the conservative Catholicism of my childhood, where every question seemed to have only one answer: Jesus.

Once our relationship became serious, it was widely assumed I would convert—not by Jay, who never pressured me, but by his family and the people at the synagogues we attended. Still, I resisted conversion. I was discomfited by the congregation’s social strictures, which seemed to have no room for my messy relationship with religion and my visceral attachment to the rituals of my childhood. The more I heard from Jay’s family and rabbis, and from random congregants, that I had to convert no matter what I believed, the less willing I was to do so. Instead, I doubled back to Catholicism, attending Mass in Oakland, where the parish priest modeled the Catholic Church’s best impulses toward social justice, and where the congregation embraced me—and Jay, on those Sundays he came with me.

To Jay’s family’s vocal dismay—his mother told us the wedding would kill his grandmother (who ended up living another 10 years)—we chose to have an interfaith wedding. Before the ceremony, Jay and I signed a ketubah, pledging to “establish a home for ourselves and our children shaped by our respective heritages.” Although they attended the wedding, Jay’s family saw our marriage as a loss. Their wedding day smiles hid their grief.

A few weeks after we married, Jay and I moved to Montana. We were young and looking to launch a new life together. Montana’s wilderness and beauty called to us. To Jay’s family, however, it seemed as if we were sailing away, off the edges of the map of known American Judaism. And after the drama around the wedding, both Jay and I were just fine with that. In Helena, we tried attending Mass at the outsize Gothic cathedral that looms over the small downtown. Unlike the priest at the Oakland church, the bishop left no room for questions. Instead, he intoned commandments: Don’t be gay, don’t stray from Church teachings, don’t disobey. We stopped going to Mass.

I’m not sure who I would have become—and who Jay and I would be as a couple—if I weren’t a history buff. Once we were mostly unpacked in our new home, I found my way to the Montana Historical Society, where I bought a book about the rich diversity of Helena in its pioneer days. Now extremely white and heavily Catholic, the mining town had originally drawn immigrants from everywhere. In the 1890s, about 20% of the population was Chinese, and the town had several African American churches. A few pages of the book were about Helena’s historical Jewish community and the synagogue they had built. Synagogue? Intrigued, I went looking for it. The building still existed, but it was now the administrative headquarters of the Catholic Church. Were all the Jews gone?

I went back to the Historical Society in search of more information. One of the historians happened to be the in the gift shop. I told her about what I’d read, and that I was interested in learning more about “Jews in Helena.” “Now or historically?” she asked. “Because I’m Jewish.” “So am I!” I exclaimed, before stuttering, “Well, kind of—I mean, I’m married to someone who’s Jewish.” Within five minutes, Martha invited Jay and me to her Seder a couple of weeks later.

Martha’s Seder was our entrance into a different kind of Jewish community than Jay or I had experienced before. It an informal group, and many of the couples were interfaith, like Jay and me. Among us there was a wide range of Jewish experiences and beliefs—from those who wanted feminist Seders to those looking for more spirituality and less ritual to those who retained a cultural connection to eating matzo. Some were raised going to Orthodox synagogues; others were raised with Jewish values and culture but far less formal observance. I felt comfortable among this eclectic group.

The former Temple Emanu-El, now the administrative offices of the Diocese of Helena

The former Temple Emanu-El, now the administrative offices of the Diocese of HelenaCOURTESY OF ELLEN BAUMLER/HELENAHISTORY.ORG

Unanchored from going to church and now living in a town without a synagogue, Jay and I slid into being holiday people. Before we got married, we talked about how we would raise our children with a solid knowledge of both faiths—and then let them sort it out as they got older. But we weren’t in a hurry to have children. We had a Christmas tree in our home and exchanged gifts. We painted eggs for Easter, and very rarely showed up for Easter Mass. We also lit Hanukkah candles, and went to Helena Jewish community parties where we’d taste-test everyone’s latkes and try and keep the kids from tripping over the dreidels. At Passover, we always found our way to a crowded Seder table.

These Jewish events sparked again my interest in Judaism—in a way that went beyond Hanukkah gelt and Hillel sandwiches. Soon after we got to Montana, Jay’s mom and I began to repair our relationship. We saw the wounds we inflicted on each other, and neither of us wanted to make Jay choose between us. As we dropped our armor during long phone calls, we recognized the seeker in each other. Roslyn, in her late 50s, was starting a master’s program in spiritual direction. I discovered that she was a resource for my questions about Jewish practice. She mailed me her challah recipe. I liked the idea of marking off sacred time, so Jay and I began observing Shabbat. That led to me reading and learning more. My connection to Shabbat deepened after I read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. From there, I slowly tackled God in Search of Man, which made me think about faith in a new way.

Still, ours was a Jewish life that would look unfamiliar to anyone living on the coasts. If we wanted to attend services, we had to drive: to Butte (80 miles), Bozeman (100 miles), or Missoula (115 miles), which imported student or traveling rabbis for the High Holidays. It was exhausting to travel on often-treacherous icy roads. We made the long trips for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But as my interest and connection to Judaism grew, it was mostly home-based or grounded in the Helena community.

Having first encountered Jewish Helena through the stone building that was once the synagogue, I began researching the community that built it.

What drew me even closer—and what served as a model for our Jewish community—was Helena’s history. Having first encountered Jewish Helena through the stone building that was once the synagogue, I began researching the community that built it. I was inspired by what I learned. Jews were among the earliest non-Native American settlers in Helena. I was drawn to the tenacity of these pioneer Jews. After establishing the Home of Peace Jewish cemetery (which is still in use), they hired a rabbi, and then architects, and began construction of their synagogue. The Montana architects had no clue how to design a synagogue, so the community taught them. In 1891, the governor laid the cornerstone of Temple Emanu-El— the first synagogue between Portland and Minneapolis—in a huge ceremony that drew crowds from across the Northwest.

Although they had seating for 500, the congregation wasn’t large. By 1935, the Jewish community could no longer maintain Temple Emanu-El. The congregation had dwindled. Those who remained sold it to the state of Montana for $1, asking that the building be used for “good and social purposes.” In converting it into a public building, the state removed its distinctive onion domes (and most likely melted them down to reclad the Capitol’s dome) and sandblasted off the Hebrew inscription that read “Gate to the Eternal.” The once-38-foot sanctuary was divided into three floors of offices that were used for social services. The state sold the building to the bishop of Helena in 1981. Helena’s Jewish community tried to raise the $83,000 to buy back the synagogue, but there just weren’t enough Jewish families to pull it off.

I could have remained the Jew I described to Martha when we first came to Helena—“Jewish, well kind of”—because that’s how I felt. I was at home going to Purim spiels and parties afterward. I was proud of my challah, and even prouder of my matzo balls. I felt comfortable at services. I’d pepper Jay with questions. “How can you be Jewish and not believe in God?” and turn to his mom when I wanted to learn about Mussar. I kept researching the historic community. But then my world came crashing down. Three months after I brought my son, Andrew, into the world, I was diagnosed with a rare, potentially fatal disease called sarcoidosis. Andrew was not yet 2 years old when a cardiologist told me that I “could drop dead at any moment.” Jay and I went from hiking Montana’s backcountry and marveling at the beauty of creation to staring at the walls of doctors’ offices that felt like they were closing in on us. In 2007, the disease attacked my nervous system. I spent months hospitalized with crippling pain, vertigo so intense I couldn’t get out of bed, and episodes of blindness. I started chemotherapy. Suddenly all those theological speculations were no longer idle.

I started by looking for answers at the cathedral, although I hadn’t been in years. In hushed conversations, the priests assured me that this was God’s plan, that God would only mete out what I could handle, that I would find meaning, that I would be reunited with Andrew in heaven no matter what. Their words fell on me like ash.

I needed more. I needed to grapple with what was happening, to find my place in it. I needed to turn to some force beyond me, and yet I also needed to rage against it. With its room for wrestling with God—with its stories of Holocaust survivors calling G-d to a beit din—Judaism had room for my rage and my search for meaning in an upside-down life. I wanted to begin to study Torah more seriously, but there were logistical problems to overcome. There was no resident rabbi within a two-hour drive, and with the vertigo my disease caused, I had trouble making it to the grocery store. One day, without really planning it, I blurted out to Jay’s mom that I wanted to study more about Judaism. She put me in touch with a family friend, Rabbi Nat Ezray, who lived in Redwood City, California. He and I ended up studying together for five years over the phone. A year in, it became clear to us both that I was studying to convert.

During our weekly calls (disrupted by my frequent hospitalizations), I felt as if I were entering into a 4,000-yearlong conversation in which my questions, and my opinions, were welcomed, even as I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me. I never got answers from the rabbi when I’d call crying wanting to know definitively what Jews believe happens after death. Instead, he referred me to texts and gave me specific lines to consider in my prayer book. He asked me more questions. I won’t say that my studies made sense of my life, but they did make me feel grounded at a time when my I worried my life was spinning out of control.

I converted to Judaism in 2012 at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City. I was nervous during my beit din. But there I was, seated at the same circular table as my interlocutors. They asked me questions. I asked some back. The conversation continued. “Won’t it be difficult to be Jewish in Montana?” they asked me. Apparently, Montana was still considered uncharted territory. So I told them about Helena’s history, about the community there that sustained me, and about the onion-domed synagogue built in 1891. I explained how what I was doing at that moment was very much a Montana Jewish experience.

While the rituals of conversion ended, my growth as a Jew was just beginning. By now, Bozeman had hired a resident, part-time rabbi. When I felt well enough, we would drive there for services. But it was the Helena Jewish community that kept me going during my 17 (and still counting) years of illness. Jay and I had set aside the interfaith intention in our ketubah: We were a Jewish family now, with a young child to raise and teach. We were part of a tenacious Helena Jewish community that followed the legacy of those that built Temple Emanu-El. We were creating something vital in what many people saw as blank spaces on the map of Jewish American life.

Rebecca Stanfel is a freelance writer in Helena, Montana, and president of the Phoenix Project, a Helena Jewish community nonprofit working to re-acquire Helena’s historic synagogue.

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