Recently, Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who has garnered a lot of attention, inspired a campaign of intimidation and harassment against the Jewish community of Whitefish, Mont. a resort community where he and his family live.
Racist web sites published the names and addresses of local Jews. Jewish children there were singled out for attack on these sites and Nazi imagery was superimposed on the bodies of these children. The racists threatened to descend on Whitefish to march against the Jews on Martin Luther King day (which they call James Earl Ray day) and they are still promising to march in future.
In response to the hatred, I traveled to Montana as part of an international delegation of rabbis.
We went for three reasons.
First, we wanted to thank the state’s elected officials for their strong and unflinching support of the Jewish community. We shared this message in meetings with Governor Steve Bullock and other politicians. One of the rabbis on the delegation, Adams Scheier proposed to the governor that we rabbis raise money and sponsor four students from the Whitefish public school system to go and visit Auschwitz. Our point was that hateful ideology unchecked leads to horrific consequences. The Governor embraced this idea, saying that he would like the students to come back and brief him and then lecture at schools around the country as his ambassadors.
We were especially moved by our meeting with Whitefish’s chief of police, Bill Dial. We asked Chief Dial if as a show of solidarity he would place a mezuzah on his door. Chief Dial said, “No, I don’t want to place it on my office where no one can see it. I want to put it on the main door so that everyone can see our support for the Jewish community.” He then proceeded to place the religious symbol on the front door of the Whitefish police station.
A second reason we went to Montana was to support the local Jewish community. We sat with community leaders and rabbis in Whitefish and met with a courageous group of Jews. Rabbi Chaim Bruk gave each family a Hebrew Bible as part of the Montana Chumash Projecthttps://jewishmontanacom.clhosting.org/templates/articlecco_cdo/aid/3551548/lang/en. The idea behind this project is that in response to the neo-Nazi message of hate, we will work extra hard to strengthen the entire Jewish community of Montana.
The leader of Montana’s Glacier Park Jewish Community, Rabbi Francine Ralston, expressed her concerns for the security of the Jewish community, which suddenly faces enormous security costs and has launched an international campaign to raise the funds.
The pressure Jews in Whitefish are facing is enormous; many members we met broke down in tears. We heard their concerns, especially about their children. One boy (we will call him J) at the meeting was 12 years old. This brave boy has been specifically and cruelly targeted by neo-Nazi websites. After his mother expressed concerns about what his upcoming bar mitzvah celebration would look like, we broke out in prayer and danced with J in a pre-bar mitzvah celebration.
Finally, the third reason we went was because these threats (which Chief Dial called “domestic terrorism”) are not just about Whitefish. Whitefish could be anywhere. There are only a handful of Nazi supporters in town, but these few hate-mongers have managed to unnerve and threaten an entire community.
Just before visiting Whitefish, I took a trip to Selma, where I had traveled with my congregation and family to learn about the civil rights movement. There we met the inspiring Joanne Bland, who at the age of 11 was arrested for her support of civil rights. She marched with Dr. King and John Lewis in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery.
My 13 year-old son told me when we came back from Alabama: “What I learned from this trip is that people like Joanne can save us from injustice. MLK wouldn’t have been able to get the voting rights by himself, he needed people like Joanne and other young children.”
Similarly, J’s parents told us that their son now feels strengthened because he now understands he is part of something much bigger than himself. He now knows he is part of something really special.
Children like Joanne and J are willing to fight for their values — even in the face of enormous danger. It is our job to follow their lead.
Since 2004, Shmuel Herzfeld has been the rabbi of Ohev Sholom —The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. He is the author of five books, including “Renewal: Inspirational Lessons of Rosh Hashanah”(Gefen Publishing House, 2015).