Light in Montana

Montana, long known as ‘big sky’ territory, is vast and beautiful,
like all its Northwestern neighbors. One might assume that there is
room enough for everyone. Yet over the past decade the five-state
area of Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana has been
designated a ‘white homeland’ for the Aryan Nation and growing
numbers of kindred skinheads, Klan members, and other white
supremacists. These groups have targeted nonwhites, Jews, gays, and
lesbians for harassment, vandalism, and injury, which in some cases
has led to murder.

In Billings, Montana (pop. 83,000), there have been a number of
hate crimes: desecration of a Jewish cemetery, threatening phone
calls to Jewish citizens, swastikas painted on the home of an
interracial couple. But it was something else that activated the
people of faith and goodwill throughout the entire community.

On December 2, 1993, a brick was thrown through 5-year-old Isaac
Schnitzer’s bedroom window. The brick and shards of glass were
strewn all over the child’s bed. The reason? A menorah and other
symbols of Jewish faith were stenciled on the glass as part of the
family’s Hanukkah celebration. The account of the incident in the
Billings Gazette the next day reported that Isaac’s mother,
Tammie Schnitzer, was troubled by the advice she got from the
investigating officer. He suggested that she remove the symbols.
How would she explain this to her son?

Another mother in Billings was deeply touched by that question.
She tried to imagine explaining to her children that they couldn’t
have a Christmas tree in the window or a wreath on the door because
it wasn’t safe. She remembered what happened when Hitler ordered
the king of Denmark to force Danish Jews to wear the Star of David.
The order was never carried out because the king himself and many
other Danes chose to wear the yellow stars. The Nazis lost the
ability to find their ‘enemies.’

There are several dozen Jewish families in Billings. This kind
of tactic could effectively deter violence if enough people got
involved. So Margaret McDonald phoned her pastor, the Rev. Keith
Torney at First Congregational United Church of Christ, and asked
what he thought of having Sunday school children make paper cut-out
menorahs for their own windows. He got on the phone with his clergy
colleagues around town, and the following week menorahs appeared in
the windows of hundreds of Christian homes. Asked about the danger
of this action, police chief Wayne Inman told callers, ‘There’s
greater risk in not doing it.’

Five days after the brick was thrown at the Schnitzer home, the
Gazette published a full-page drawing of a menorah, along
with a general invitation for people to put it up. By the end of
the week at least six thousand homes (some accounts estimate up to
ten thousand) were decorated with menorahs.

A sporting goods store got involved by displaying ‘Not in Our
Town! No hate. No violence. Peace on Earth’ on its large billboard.
Someone shot at it. Townspeople organized a vigil outside the
synagogue during Sabbath services. That same night bricks and
bullets shattered windows at Central Catholic High School, where an
electric marquee read ‘Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish Friends.’ The
cat of a family with a menorah was killed with an arrow. Windows
were broken at a United Methodist church because of its menorah
display. The car and house windows of six non-Jewish families were
shattered. A note that said ‘Jew lover’ was left on a car.

Eventually these incidents waned, but people continued in their
efforts to support one another against hate crimes. After being
visited at home and threatened by one of the local skinhead
leaders, Tammie Schnitzer is now always accompanied by friends when
she goes on her morning run. During the Passover holiday last
spring, 250 Christians joined their Jewish brothers and sisters in
a traditional Seder meal. New friendships have formed, new
traditions have started, and greater mutual understanding and
respect have been achieved.

Last winter families all over Billings took out their menorahs
to reaffirm their commitment to peace and religious tolerance. The
light they shared in their community must be continuously rekindled
until hatred has been overcome.

Reprinted from Fellowship (Jan./Feb.
1995). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (6 issues) from the Fellowship of
Reconciliation, 521 N. Broadway, Nyack, NY 10960.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.