Montana Jewish Project ‘perplexed,’ ‘saddened,’ by Speaker of the House Regier

In guest piece, Regier says antisemitism nationally is alarming, does not explain cancellation of Jewish prayer in Montana House

By: - May 26, 2023 9:33 am

The Montana State Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

Speaker of the House Matt Regier has not communicated directly with the Montana Jewish Project since its director asked the reason Republican leadership took a rabbi off the schedule to lead prayer, according to the organization that celebrates Jewish life in Montana.

On May 4, Montana Jewish Project Director Rebecca Stanfel asked Regier in a letter to explain the reason Rep. Ed Stafman’s prayer on the House floor had been canceled. She noted Montana has seen a period of “unprecedented” levels of antisemitism.

Stafman is a rabbi emeritus and Bozeman Democrat.

The prayer cancellation drew national attention through a story published May 18 in Forward, a publication of the national Jewish nonprofit. It comes amidst a record high in national antisemitic violence and assaults as tracked by ADL — previously the Anti-Defamation League — and in state incidents tracked by the Montana Human Rights Network.

In an earlier interview with the Daily Montanan, Stafman said he had led prayer early in the session, and like some other legislators, he was set to lead it a second time. He also noted he and a minister are the only two “professional prayer leaders” in the body.

Stafman said he sat through Christian prayers throughout the session and believes a particular and possibly fundamentalist brand of Christianity is pervasive at the Capitol. However, he also said earlier his second prayer was inexplicably canceled.

(He had noted he felt the cancellation was a small indignity compared to some of the legislation related to the LGBTQ+ community and renters, for example, and he only mentioned it briefly on the House floor for the record but didn’t pursue it further.)

The incident prompted an inquiry from the Montana Jewish Project, and this week, the Helena Independent Record published a guest opinion piece by Regier in response to Director Stanfel.

However, in his piece, Regier did not explain the reason Stafman was not allowed to lead prayer later in the session. 

In his opinion piece, Regier said Stanfel made some good points, but he also said she “jumped to erroneous conclusions.”

“The alarming rise of antisemitism across our nation is horrific and is an issue on which we need to press back,” Regier said in the piece.

He noted attempts to pass legislation in 2017 and 2019 to prohibit sanctions of Israel and his enthusiastic support along with other Republicans for ensuring Montana could not financially discriminate against the country.

“Unfortunately, it only received three Democrat votes in the House and failed to get to the governor’s desk,” he said.

Regier also said no legislator was ever asked their religious beliefs before an invocation, and it was “disheartening to have that inferred.”

“In the present state of social media and biased legacy media, we need to be cautiously discerning about conclusions we may draw,” Regier said. 

He closed: “May God continue to bless Israel and may God bless the United States of America.”

Thursday, Stanfel said Regier had not reached out to her directly since she first wrote to him or after a letter this week in response to his published opinion.

The Montana Jewish Project letter dated May 24 said Regier’s guest editorial left the organization “perplexed, troubled, and — most of all — deeply saddened.”

Stanfel said she first reached out to Regier through a personal email and “tried explicitly not to jump to any ‘erroneous conclusions.’” However, she said she wanted to share some context with him regarding how many Jewish Montanans perceived the cancellation.

“As one of only two ordained clergy in the legislature, it makes sense he (Stafman) would lead the invocation a second time, and we still don’t understand why this honor was taken away,” Stanfel wrote.

She said the Montana Jewish Project had hoped for a conversation, which was the reason she invited Regier to visit the synagogue and shared her personal cell phone number with him.

“We heard nothing back from you until yesterday’s editorial,” Stanfel wrote. “I said in my May 4 letter to you that ‘in this period of unprecedented antisemitism, even unintentional acts of exclusion can signal exactly that — exclusion and unwelcomeness.’ Your silence only amplified this sense of exclusion for many.”

She said it’s good Regier wants to push back against antisemitism nationally, but she said his Jewish constituents in Montana are facing antisemitic threats at home at record levels.

“Montana has more hate groups per capita than any other state,” Stanfel said in her letter. “The safety and security of our communities and individuals has become the primary concern for many Jews in Montana.”

However, she also expressed dismay at the way Regier brought politics into the equation.

“We are most disturbed at your attempts to take issues that deal with the safety and well-being of Montanans — and that overlap with fundamental Constitutional rights — and reduce them to petty partisan politics,” Stanfel said. 

“We would have hoped that the Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives would view growing hate not as votes counted by either party in 2017 (or in 2023), but as an urgent problem we would tackle — together — across party lines.”

She said her invitation for a conversation remains open.

Regier did not respond to a voicemail Thursday from the Daily Montanan in time for this story.

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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.