In the wake of recent anti-Semitic threats and online harassment in Montana, members of the Jewish community gathered in the Capitol Wednesday for the annual menorah lighting ceremony.
The gathering celebrated Hanukkah, and Jewish leaders emphasized the importance of bringing light into an often dark world.
Gov. Steve Bullock joined the ceremony, and spoke to over 60 people in the rotunda. He co-authored an open letter to Montanans with Attorney General Tim Fox, Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester earlier this week to denounce threats made toward the Jewish community in Whitefish. The letter said the officials will stand together despite any political differences to “stand up for what’s right.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Bullock reiterated his support for the Jewish community in Montana. He called on Montanans to recommit to shared values of humility, charity and tolerance.
“We gather here to do more than light a candle. We gather to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, spirituality over materiality, and of purity over adulteration,” Bullock said. “May we continue this commitment long beyond Hanukkah and the holiday season.”
On Dec. 20, a column was published in the Missoulian by Laurie Franklin, a spiritual leader of Har Shalom in Missoula. She was unable to make it to Helena on Wednesday, but her letter was read in full.
After the Jewish people defeated Antiochus IV and his invading forces, she explains, they rededicated their Holy Temple by lighting the temple lamp with the one remaining jug of holy oil. It was only supposed to keep the menorah lit for one night, but instead lasted eight days.
Hanukkah, or the festival of lights, celebrates the miracle by lighting one candle each night until all eight are lit. The word Hanukkah means dedication, and Franklin wrote that she will be rededicating herself to freedom.
“Once again, I declare to the world, ‘I am a Jew, and I love my religious and cultural heritage, my ancestors, my family and my Jewish community,’” she wrote.
Franklin invited Montanans to join her in placing a menorah in their window in solidarity after neo-Nazi fliers were distributed in Missoula.
“We will not remain silent when fellow citizens applaud the ugliness of the Nazi regime and dare to suggest that it offers a model for society. We will do everything in our power to oppose the rise of hateful rhetoric and action directed towards Jews and all other groups," she wrote.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk of Bozeman provided a teaching on why the menorah has nine candles. The ninth candle is called the shamash, or the helping candle, and typically sits higher than the other eight candles.
Bruk said he encourages people to embody the helping candle by going above and beyond to help others and perform simple acts of kindness, especially in a time when Jewish people in Montana are being threatened and harassed. Instead of reacting to evil with anger, Bruk called for the community to respond to hateful people with love.
“They are absolutely allergic to light,” he said. “Respond with something they can’t counter with.”
While the Jewish community has a history full of persecution, Rabbi Ed Stafman of Bozeman acknowledged the need to stand up for any group who faces oppression. He said the Bible repeatedly says people should not mistreat or oppress foreigners, because they were strangers themselves in Egypt.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were almost 900 incidents of harassment or intimidation in the 10 days after the election. Of the reported incidents, 100 were anti-Semitic and 49 were anti-Muslim. President-elect Donald Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, and said he was open to a registry of Muslims already in the country.
“I’ll be the first one to register,” Stafman said.