The Montana Jewish Project hopes small boxes can make a big difference in the fight against antisemitism

Small packages are being sent to various schools across Montana, which some hope will make big results when it comes to learning about acceptance and anti-Semitism.

The Montana Jewish Project (MJP) has compiled more than 30 “curriculum kits” and sent them to fourth-grade teachers across the state who have requested them.

“We believe that only through education and outreach is the only way we can address growing hatred of all kinds,” Helena-based MJP officials said.

Volunteers from the group assembled the kits, which include an MJP lesson plan written by Martha Kohl called Standing Up to Hate: A Montana Jewish Project Hanukkah Lesson Plan.

The box also includes a picture book called The Christmas Menorahs, which tells a true story of how Billings rallied around his Jewish community in 1993 when an anti-Semitic incident occurred during Hanukkah, in which a brick broke through a child’s bedroom window was thrown where a menorah was on display. As part of the effort, The Billings Gazette printed a full-page color image of a menorah and urged residents to display it to show their solidarity.

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“It’s a beautiful story of people saying ‘no’ to hate,” said Rebecca Stanfel, CEO of MJP, of The Christmas Menorahs, written by Janice Cohn and illustrated by Bill Farnsworth.

Kohl, a volunteer at MJP, said the book is a great way to talk to kids about historical events that happened in Billings. She said the then police chief was instrumental in ensuring that the community needed to nip this problem in the bud.

“This outpouring of community support stopped anti-Semitism in its tracks,” she said. “It makes me proud to be a Montanan and proud of Billings.”

She said the incident was not only a good example against anti-Semitism, but also against bullying in schoolyards.

The curriculum box also includes a menorah, candles, dreidels, a guide to the dreidels, and non-food gelt.

The boxes requested by the teachers were shipped to cities like Box Elder, Bynum, Poplar, and Corvallis. MJP officials estimate they’ve spent at least $5,000 on the packages so far.

Stanfel said there is concern about the rising tide of public anti-Semitism emanating from politicians, media figures and other influencers.

Antisemitic incidents peaked in the United States in 2021, the Anti-Defamation League reported, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism. This is the highest number of incidents recorded since ADL began tracking anti-Semitic incidents in 1979 – averaging more than seven per day and a 34% increase from the previous year.

According to their report, Montana had two in 2018, six in 2019, five in 2020, and three in 2021.

Stanfel said one of the educators at a rural school in eastern Montana said they needed all the diversity lessons they could get their hands on. And Episcopal, Lutheran and Catholic bishops want to make the box available for religious education.

She said she hopes the boxes will get kids to talk about how they would feel if someone made fun of them because of their culture, race or tribe and encourage them to speak out against hate.

“Getting into schools is important to us,” Stanfel said, noting that there’s a lot of bullying and making fun of kids that goes under the radar. She said children don’t like to report it.

She said it was particularly troubling that entertainer/entrepreneur Kanye West, now known as Ye, was recently spotted wearing a shirt that read “White Lives Matter,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center called ” Neo-Nazi group has described and has a presence in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

Western and white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes recently had dinner with former President Donald Trump, who has ignored calls to apologize for meeting them.

Cherilyn DeVries, communications manager and community organizer for the Montana Human Rights Network, said she hasn’t seen hard data but said she sees more overt indications of antisemitism in the mainstream media.

“When Kanye West makes clearly anti-Semitic comments and white nationalists dine with a presidential candidate, we know information tends to leak down,” she said.

DeVries said racist material is regularly posted throughout Montana.

She believes anti-Semitism could rise as people feel economic anxiety and rising inflation.

DeVries said many of the comments accuse Jews of controlling banking and the media and manipulating the economy to their advantage.

“It’s completely inaccurate,” she said.

Regarding the curriculum boxes, DeVries said, “I think whenever Jewish people try to communicate with us and about their experiences with the Holocaust, genocide and discrimination, we need to listen to them.”

The MJP recently moved into a synagogue built 130 years ago in Helena for use as a community and cultural center for Jews in the state. It marked the return of a Jewish temple to the capital since 1935. MJP finalized the contract in August with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, which previously owned the building.

Stanfel was pleased with the public interest in the boxes.

“I’m… super excited,” she said. “It is our first major project since taking over this building. We said from the beginning that our mission works nationwide.”

People interested in the Curriculum Box should go to montanajewishproject.com and click on Education.

The Montana Jewish Project is hosting a Hanukkah Party and Menorah Lighting on December 18 from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at 515 N. Ewing St., Helena. There will be crafts and treats. It will be the first menorah lighting in the temple since 1934.

Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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