With Hanukkah coming, Montana Jewish Project celebrates by creating classroom kits

Nearly 60 classrooms got menorah, candles, dreidel and book chronicling Jewish holiday and Montana history

By: - December 9, 2022 4:59 pm

Boxes are loaded and ready to be sent to teachers across the state with materials related to Hanukkah and Montana Judaism Volunteers prepare Hanukkah education boxes for classrooms around the state at the newly dedicated Montana Jewish Community Center in Helena, the site of the state’s oldest synagogue An example of the education materials sent to 50 classrooms around the state that teach about Judaism, Montana and Hanukkah (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Stanfel of the Montana Jewish Project).

The newly formed Montana Jewish Project had already been planning to conduct more outreach and education in the state, and saw Hanukkah festivities as a new opportunity to build understanding, especially with what they see as a rise in anti-Semitism around the country.

The Montana Jewish Project has just recently been able to buy back Montana’s oldest synagogue in the heart of Helena, and as one of its first projects, was preparing Hanukkah boxes for teachers to use a classroom resource. Between 50 and 60 boxes, complete with a menorah, dreidel and lesson plans were sent around the state to educate students about the Jewish tradition and culture which has helped shape the Treasure State.

Hannukah begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 18 and runs through Monday, Dec. 26

The MJP at first was formed to buy the former Temple Emanu-El building, but it’s purpose was not to turn it back into a synagogue, nor to have it become a static museum. Instead, the building functions as a Jewish Community Center – space to have worship, but also community events, cultural education and other functions.

Hanukkah seemed like the perfect moment to send out information because it’s a relatable holiday with lights, candy and a tradition of gifts not so unlike the more familiar Christmas.

“This is just the first step of what we believe is continuing in the spirit of our founders,” said Rebecca Stanfel, the director of the MJP. “We’re really concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism. It’s just become so acceptable to express these views which are so troubling.”

She hopes the Hanukkah boxes will help promote understanding of the Jewish faith and culture and remind Montanans that Jewish history is inextricably linked to Montana history.

Part of that story is the book which is included, “The Christmas Menorah,” by Janice Cohn. It chronicles the story of Billings’ response to anti-Semitism in the early 1990s when a Jewish family was targeted. It told about the entire community putting up menorahs as a sign of solidarity. Stanfel hopes that the Montana story makes the concepts real, and gives a concrete example of how to stand up against bigotry and hatred.

Volunteers prepare Hanukkah education boxes for classrooms around the state at the newly dedicated Montana Jewish Community Center in Helena, the site of the state’s oldest synagogue An example of the education materials sent to 50 classrooms around the state that teach about Judaism, Montana and Hanukkah (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Stanfel of the Montana Jewish Project).

Kimberely Winkowitsch teaches kindergarten through eighth grade in Cut Bank. Her students are primarily Hutterite, and she received one of the Hanukkah resource boxes. She praised Martha Kohl of the Montana Historical Society for helping to prepare the boxes as well as writing lesson plans that frequently incorporate Montana history into meaningful classroom assignments.

“This story deals with bullying and racism and discrimination and the rise of anti-Semitism,” Winkowitsch said.

She said those are important lessons and concepts to teach students – even younger ones about.

As they learn about Hanukkah, they light menorah candles daily and read from the story. The students play dreidel, and have fun.

“It exposes them to a different culture and since many of them are from a different culture, they appreciate that. They love it, really,” Winkowitsch said. “They are very community minded so the story of a community coming together really resonated with them.”

She said she plans to use the curriculum again and continue it as a tradition, teaching students about both culture and Montana history simultaneously.

Stanfel said the story and message is a significant one that Montana shouldn’t forget.

“While we’re strong believers in the separation of church and state, this was an important historical event in Billings and it creates a discussion and lesson for bullying and understanding those who are different. It goes back to tribal identity. This is not a Jewish problem, it’s a problem for all of us,” Stanfel said.

The boxes went to places all over the state – and not just to Montana’s larger towns. Instead, Stanfel sent the educational materials to Box Elder, Bynum, Eureka, Dutton, Poplar, Froid and many other places.

“I have lived here 25 years and even I found myself asking, ‘Where’s Froid?’” Stanfel said (Hint: It’s just up the road from Culbertson).

She said with the dreidel game, menorah and candles, the lesson plan focused on activities that elementary school kids would enjoy. She said the project cost around $5,000 to complete, and the Montana Jewish Project hopes to do similar things in the future as part of its mission.

An example of the education materials sent to 50 classrooms around the state that teach about Judaism, Montana and Hanukkah (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Stanfel of the Montana Jewish Project).

For example, the project is offering tours of the new building to visiting groups of high school students. They’re also coordinating with a Billings teacher about a display, and hopes to announce a Holocaust literature class with a focus on Yom HaShoai, the Day of Remembrance that looks back at the Holocust.

On Sunday, the Holter Center along with MJP are going to have a “Make Your Own Candles,” which will help. From there, menorahs will be lit, marking the first time Hanukkah has been celebrated in the worship space since 1934.

“We’re not bludgeoning anyone over the head with it,” Stanfel said. “It’s a fun way to learn about traditions. And hopefully it will get children to think about the power of words and actions, especially toward those who might be different – it might be LDS, Hutterite, Native American, or someone with a different skin color. To be aware of those difference and learn about them is fun.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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