As Jewish communities around the world gather for Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year – the small but vibrant Jewish congregation of Bet Harim in Whitefish will have something a little extra to celebrate. The congregation, headed by Montana’s only reform Rabbi, is reaching out with more community events, and aiming to partner with other spiritual groups in the valley.
On Oct. 19, in partnership with the Human Rights Network, Bet Harim will show the documentary “Paperclips,” about a project by students in Tennessee to commemorate the Holocaust. In November the group will make menorahs for Hanukah at Whitefish’s Stumptown art gallery. These events and others aim to bring people of all faiths together to discuss ways to embrace diversity in the Flathead.
According to Rabbi Allen Secher, there are roughly 800 families in Montana who identify themselves as Jewish, with the largest congregations in Bozeman and Billings. Secher – who marched in the South during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and also hosts a Sunday night radio show on KOFI – came to the Flathead from Chicago with his wife, Ina Albert, seven years ago. “We adore Whitefish,” Secher says. “When I call it the Garden of Eden I don’t think I’m too far off.”
The Jewish community took shape in the Flathead about 21 years ago, when a handful of families gathered to celebrate the holidays in each others’ houses, with services led by members or visiting student rabbis, Albert said. Over the years, Bet Harim has grown to comprise between 35 and 40 “units,” a term that can describe a large family or single person, but it’s still a size Secher describes as “smallish.” The congregation now meets every week for Sabbath at the Glacier Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Kalispell.
Secher is the rabbi for the congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, but is a member of Bet Harim and serves as an adviser. For the “High Holy Days,” which comprise Roch Hashana and Yom Kippur and are the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Amy Morrison, currently a fifth-year student at Hebrew Union college in Los Angeles, will be leading the Whitefish services while Secher leads services in Bozeman. Rosh Hashana is a celebratory bringing in of the new year, while Yom Kippur is about reflecting on the year past and atoning for sins.
“Rabbi Secher brings continuity and stability to the congregation,” says LeAnn Kalstein, president of Bet Harim’s board of directors. “With a rabbi, we have a focus, we have a center.” Bet Harim espouses a spirituality in tune with the natural world, Secher says. It can be found in the mountains and lakes of the Flathead – not necessarily in a prayer service. It is also a congregation with a number of interfaith families, where families that may not be 100 percent Jewish are welcomed. “It’s really important to us to create a place where people can feel comfortable with their non-Jewish spouse,” Albert said. Bet Harim’s services are open to anyone who wants to celebrate their spirituality without pressure to convert to Judaism.
“This group is now going to be very aggressive in their reaching out,” Secher says. “Making a change in the world for the better is very much a part of who we are.”
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