(JTA) – It has been 86 years since the Jewish community of Helena, Montana, sold their first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, to the town of Helena for just a dollar. Now the small Jewish community that remains in the city is trying to buy it for almost a million dollars from the Catholic Diocese of Helena, which bought the building in 1981.
Rebecca Stanfel, a community member who is leading efforts to raise the funds needed to purchase the building, told the Jewish Telegraph Agency that she has long hoped to restore the building to its original purpose as a location for rally for the Jewish community of Helena.
“For years, I parked in front of the old synagogue, looking at the cross on top and wondering what might be possible someday. Now we are one step closer to making it a reality, ”she said.
If purchased by the Montana Jewish Project, the non-profit organization created by Stanfel and others to purchase the building, the synagogue would serve as a community center and host cultural events and holiday celebrations. Stanfel also hopes to create an exhibit dedicated to the history of Jewish communities in Montana.
Although today’s Jewish community in Helena is small, the capital was once home to a large Jewish community thanks to the Gold Rush of the 1860s. The cornerstone of the Emanu-El Temple was laid in 1891, in a time when hundreds of Jews still flocked to the Reformed synagogue to celebrate the holidays. The synagogue was built to accommodate 500 worshipers.
But in just a few decades, many of the city’s Jews had relocated, leaving the much smaller community unable to afford the building’s maintenance. In 1935, the community sold the building to the city for just one dollar. The city removed the building’s distinctive decorative copper domes and turned it into a social service office building before selling it to the Catholic Diocese of Helena in 1981.
The group has until February 2022 to raise 75% of the funds needed to seal an agreement with the diocese that was signed last week.