Montana Jewish Project asks Speaker Regier to explain why rabbi taken off prayer schedule

By: - May 5, 2023 5:30 pm

The Montana State Flag and tribal flags fly in front of the Montana State Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

The Montana Jewish Project asked Speaker of the House Matt Regier this week if he could help the nonprofit understand the reason Rep. Ed Stafman, a rabbi, was denied the opportunity to lead prayer at the end of the legislative session.

The organization, which reacquired Montana’s oldest synagogue, made the request in a March 4 letter, citing “a sharp increase in antisemitic incidents and attacks across Montana in recent years.”

“Last year had the most such incidents since the data began being collected,” said the letter, from Rebecca Stanfel, Montana Jewish Project director. “We choose not to infer antisemitic intentions in denying Rabbi Stafman the chance to lead this prayer.

“But in this period of unprecedented antisemitism, even unintentional acts of exclusion can signal exactly that — exclusion and unwelcomeness.

“We would be grateful if you could help us — and our many non-Jewish partners — understand what happened,” the letter said.

ADL, previously the Anti-Defamation League, tracks antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assaults, and in March, it said 2022 had reached a record high number of incidents in the U.S. since it began counting in 1979. It counted 3,697 incidents, a 36% increase from 2021.

“This is the third time in the past five years that the year-end total has been the highest number ever recorded,” the league said in its report.

It said newly formed white supremacist groups contributed, and in particular, the “White Lives Matter” network was responsible for 15% of antisemitic propaganda incidents, and Montana was the No. 3 state for such activity, with six incidents. It counted 37 incidents in all in Montana the last four years.

Speaker Regier, a Kalispell Republican, could not be reached Friday for comment via voicemail in time for this story.

In a phone call, Stafman said the decision by leadership to disallow him from offering his scheduled prayer is a minor indignity compared to other activity during the legislative session.

He said people who are LGBTQ+ and renters, for instance, received the short end of the stick. Stafman, who led a congregation in Bozeman and is a rabbi emeritus, also noted he was allowed to offer a prayer early on during the session, but then also taken off the schedule at least one other time.

Stafman had planned to offer a prayer based on passages from the book of Isaiah that discuss justice. He said the body had been praying together for nearly 90 days at that point, and it made him think of the intense prayer of Yom Kippur.

In those verses, he said God through the prophet offers people a reminder to not feel too self righteous: “I’m not interested in your words. I’m interested in you doing justice.” In other words, he said, God reminds people to take in those who are homeless and feed those who are poor.

Stafman said he learned he wasn’t going to have the opportunity to offer the prayer the Monday he had been scheduled to give it, and the legislator who coordinates the invocation didn’t explain the reason, but he said “obviously it had come from leadership.”

He noted the change in a public comment on the floor of the House, but he said his only interest was in marking the incident for the record, and he hasn’t pursued it further. He also said he and an elected minister are the only “professional prayer leaders” in the body.

Overwhelmingly, the prayers offered all session “had very, very Christian bents,” in the tradition of “high Christology,” he said. “The great majority of them are offered in Jesus’ name, for example.”

He said he prays in public all the time, and when he’s praying in a public space with people of different religious beliefs, he tries to make sure his prayer is ecumenical and “works for everybody,” even if it has Jewish roots.

“So it felt to me that the fact that it wasn’t Christian played a role,” Stafman said. “Can I prove that? Nobody said that to me, no.”

He said a particular brand of of Christianity is pervasive, which some might call fundamentalism. He hasn’t experienced antisemitism directly at the Capitol, but he said it manifests at least in the way legislation is treated, for example.

The legislature expanded a law that protects the rights of health care providers to opt out of practices that are against their religious views, but Stafman said his bill that would have protected the right of a pregnant woman to have an abortion from a willing provider was tabled.

Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation testified against the bill, and Stafman said he compared bill supporters with Satanists: “He didn’t specifically call us Satanists, but that was the analogy he drew.

“Two or three days later, there were fliers distributed in my neighborhood by a Nazi group that cited two Biblical verses from the Christian Bible that said Jews are Satanists, the children of Satan,” Stafman said.

He said he can’t draw a line from the testimony to the fliers, and he can’t point to antisemitic comments directed at him. But Stafman also said some committee members “clearly showed a lack of respect for my religious beliefs.”

Earlier in the session, he said Democrats couldn’t lead the invocation at all after Rep. Bob Carter of Missoula offered his message in February.

On Valentine’s Day, Carter said he offered a moment of silence as his invocation and asked people to contemplate those they love or those who love them. Then, on March 14, he used the invocation to celebrate Pi Day.

He said he volunteers in middle school quite a bit, Pi Day is a big event at school, and he knew the gallery would be full of students that day. As such, he wanted to offer an invocation relevant to them, and he read the first few digits of Pi and gave a short history of its significance.

“This is not me trying to push the boundaries of invocation or anything,” Carter said. “This is me trying to find something that’s interesting” to the students.

The “bonus” was he purchased a dozen pies and put them out on the snack bar in honor of Pi Day. Carter said people told him the Speaker was visibly upset by his invocation, and at least one person told him he would “go to hell” for it. Another person told him about having a Pi Day comforter or afghan.

“People teased me about it for quite a while afterwards,” Carter said.

The next day, he said he recalls the Speaker telling people the invocation would be “for invoking, not pontificating,” he paraphrased, and he himself was told he would not be able to sign up to deliver the invocation again. His interpretation is that the Democrats were in “an invocation timeout.”

Carter said he isn’t himself a believer, but he attended Thursday morning legislative prayer meetings to support people who go, and he participated in the opening of the Mormon temple and Jewish synagogue in Helena.

“I would sum up the whole invocation issue as a small indicator of the bigger trend of the conservative leadership in the House of Representatives’ intolerance to anyone who does not think, act or believe like they do,” Carter said.

Rep. Paul Tuss, a Democrat from Havre, was on the schedule for the invocation shortly after a protest broke out in the gallery by supporters of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, calling on the speaker to recognize her.

Tuss said he volunteered to show Speaker Regier his prayer in advance of offering it because he had heard the speaker was worried he was going to be political.

Zephyr, the first openly transgender woman elected to the legislature, had said Republicans should be “ashamed” for supporting a bill that bans gender affirming care for minors, and the speaker said he wouldn’t call on her again until she apologized, which she refused to do.

Tuss said he was going to offer the prayer the day after the protest, and he said it spoke to the importance of diversity and how people gain strength from diversity. He said he showed Regier, who didn’t have a problem with it. He also said he would have appreciated hearing Stafman’s prayer.

“I know that he’s a prayer leader in the Jewish faith, and I would have loved to have heard what he had to say, but unfortunately, we weren’t given that opportunity,” Tuss said.

Rebecca Stanfel, with the Montana Jewish Project, said Friday she hasn’t heard back from Speaker Regier, but she’d heard from at least 18 people who were upset about Stafman being taken off the schedule for prayer, including people of no faith and people outside Montana.

At an event a couple of weeks ago to remember the Holocaust, she said ADL and the Montana Human Rights Network both noted high levels of antisemitic activity, “unprecedented,” in the U.S. and Montana. She pointed to a school closure in Billings in the last six months or so because of swastikas drawn on the building and “truly loathsome material” left on nearby cars around the time the Montana Jewish Project reacquired the synagogue in October 2022.

“We live in an age of, unfortunately, very divided and very angry politics,” Stanfel said. “And there’s been a lot going on in the legislature that has made people angry.”

With the letter, she said she wants to give Speaker Regier the benefit of the doubt: “We’d like to give him a chance to explain to Montanans what this was about.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.