A heavily armed man apparently motivated by his strident anti-Semitic beliefs entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and slaughtered 11 worshiping Jews, most of them elderly, on the morning of Oct. 27.
That same day, Whitefish Rabbi Francine Roston was in Chicago, visiting her daughter in college, when the Sabbath service she was attending was interrupted by the news.
“I have dear friends who are rabbis in different congregations so I was immediately scared for my colleagues,” Roston said, her voice beginning to crack.
A short while later, and once she learned those she knew personally in Pittsburgh were safe, the rabbi’s thoughts turned to back to Northwest Montana. By that evening she had sent an email to the congregants of the Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom with information on a vigil she would lead the following night at City Beach in Whitefish.
“We needed to come together and lean on each other,” Roston said. “And feel like we could grieve together.”
The vigil brought up a torrent of emotions for Roston and the rest of the Jewish community. There was overwhelming grief, of course, a profound sadness at the loss of life in what should have been a safe space, but there was more. There was disappointment that anti-Semitism’s resurgence in recent years had not been taken more seriously, and that more had not been done outside of the Jewish community to combat hate speech. There was also anger, loads of anger, at the perpetrator of the attack. And there was fear, to be sure, that any Jewish person could be next.
Bleakly, however, there was hardly a feeling of surprise. No shock that such contempt could be held toward the Jewish community, no brushing off the massacre as a one-off action carried out by an outlier, no wondering “how could this happen?” That feeling was especially true for the Jewish community in Northwest Montana, which less than two years earlier had been subjected to a terrifying online trolling campaign perpetrated by a neo-Nazi website that published personal information about prominent local Jewish families before urging its followers to “take action.”
“For people to be killed in the sanctuary, practicing their religion, is not supposed to happen in this country,” Roston said, fighting through tears. “And yet, I don’t think any rabbi was surprised by the news. Every time I lead a service I have to be concerned about security and plan for the worst, and it’s a horrifying reality. And the sad thing is the Jewish community is terrified, and while I want to believe that things will get better, we don’t have a lot of confidence that things will get better.”
Anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence is nothing new, particularly in the Flathead Valley where white supremacists in a group called Kalispell Pioneer Little Europe gained a foothold in the early 2000s and screened white nationalist films in 2010 that, among other things, argued the Holocaust did not happen.
In response, retired Rabbi Allen Secher and his wife, Ina Albert, helped found Love Lives Here, a nonprofit affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, and protested outside each screening at Kalispell’s library. Secher, a longtime civil-rights activist blessed with a wry sense of humor, greeted attendees of the screenings with a sign that read, “I only hate broccoli.”
Secher and Albert — who would later be among the targets of the December 2016 online troll storm — were joined at those 2010 protests by a small number of other, non-Jewish, religious leaders in a sign of solidarity. But it was not until more than six years later, when the Daily Stormer’s online attack began and neo-Nazis planned a march in Whitefish, that Love Lives Here again rallied leaders from a number of different faiths in response.
“The community was incredible,” Secher said of 2016. “I could not walk down the street without people stopping to hug me. We were being held, our heads were being held high by the community, and that was wonderful.”
Secher, Roston and others certainly appreciated the support at times of greatest need, but slowly an appetite was growing for something more to be done, a way to be more proactive than reactive to religious violence. To borrow a well-worn political cliché, thoughts and prayers only went so far.
Roston, who was also targeted during the late 2016 attacks, had only moved to Whitefish two years earlier and when news of the online threats started to break she heard from just two local clergy: Rev. Morie Adams-Griffin of Whitefish United Methodist Church and David Rommereim, a retired Lutheran pastor who briefly led a congregation in Polson after several decades in New York City.
“There was really not a formal response from the Christian religious community,”Rommereim said. “A couple comments here or there but nothing deliberate to contradict that vicious behavior.”
Rommereim added that “any individual speaking would be rather impotent against that behavior,” and so he decided to bring together as many clergy as he could to do something other than offer thoughts, prayers or kind words to fight back against a rising tide of anti-Semitism.
A small group of religious leaders first met in early 2017 and has continued to meet every month since that time, bringing in new people from different congregations along the way. In the days after the Pittsburgh shooting, a total of 16 clergy — including Roston, Secher, Rommereim and Adams-Griffin — signed a letter that was sent to local news outlets, including the Beacon, condemning the murders.
The inter-faith group deliberately has no name and no stated mission, and those who are a part of it resist even calling themselves “members” of the group. The goal, instead, is simply to talk and, more importantly, listen to one another. That, they believe, will in time make it more difficult for anti-Semitism to take root in this or any area, and can give strength to a Jewish community too often worshiping in fear.
“It’s easy to demonize the other, whoever the other might be, when you don’t know the other,” Adams-Griffin said.
“I hate to say complacent … but all of a sudden when there was this uprising up in Whitefish (in December 2016) it sort of startled everybody,” Sister Judy Lund, of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church and another of the letter’s signatories, said. “Maybe we need to stand up and be counted, not just sit back on our own faith group but maybe we need to speak out and make our own congregations aware.”
In a nod to the incremental progress the group has made, Roston heard from a half-dozen local clergy in the hours after the late October shooting and from several others in the days since. Adams-Griffin used his pulpit to specifically address the shootings on two separate occasions during a service the day after the attack. Scott Thompson, pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, observed a moment of silence during his service on Oct. 28 and planned to speak again on the subject the following weekend.
“We are building relationships,” Thompson said. “Just hearing each other and sharing each other, laughing together, crying together, allowing ourselves to be supportive of one another.”
The group has no firm goals or plans for the future, other than to keep a dialogue going, although they did organize an interfaith peace service at Kalispell’s Gateway Community Center in June. More interfaith services are possible in the future, and one pastor, Miriam Mauritzen, is hosting a nondenominational post-election Vigil for Restoration at First Presbyterian Church in Kalispell on Nov. 7, with services at 7 a.m. and noon. Roston and Thompson are among the other clergy participating.
The post-election vigil speaks to another concern some members of the group share, that the rancorous political rhetoric that has been unleashed in the last two years is fueling hate groups. While politics is not a part of the interfaith discussions, some of the members were unwilling to bite their tongues regarding the reluctance of political leaders to denounce hate speech or tamp down divisive comments.
“Because of what is going on in the world with people who are emboldened to do this (stuff) … there is more fear,” Adams-Griffin said. “There is more fear because there are not people at higher levels of providing the rhetoric being held accountable.”
For Secher, the current climate has him skeptical that anti-Semites will be silenced, at least until political changes occur.
“I’m determined but not (optimistic) in the current system of politics,” Secher said. “As long as we hear racism from the bully pulpit, as long as we hear talk about some of us being the enemy of the country; as long as we continue to hear that, it’s going to be a tough world. I’m not despairing but I’m hurt.”
Part of what the group of clergy has achieved, wittingly or not, is that they share some of Secher’s hurt and the greater Jewish community’s pain. This growing connection, they hope, will make everyone feel safer, feel less afraid, and feel free to practice whatever faith they choose without risking their life.
“When we have this relationship, it’s not just you,” Mauritzen said. “We have bonded ourselves together to say we share this and we are about the same good. When you are harmed, you are brothers and sisters, and we are harmed.”
“I was talking with a member of (Roston)’s congregation and just saying ‘I’m so sorry for what’s happened to your community’ and she goes ‘this is bad for all of us,’” Mauritzen continued. “This isn’t a ‘you’ issue, it needs to be an ‘us’ issue.”