BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — It took a moment for it all to sink in with Dr. Brian Schnitzer. While working in his home office in early December 1993, he heard a loud noise upstairs. It was only when he felt the brisk, winter breeze at his desk that he knew something wasn’t right.
Once he found his son’s broken bedroom window, which was displaying a menorah, he knew the messages being sent to the Jewish community of Billings had taken a violent turn.
“This was across the red line. Even when (they were) calling your phone, you have the choice of whether to pick up or not, or hang up. Somehow, this was very different. They knew where you lived and they had picked a child’s bedroom… It was obviously a child’s bedroom and the window is obviously decorated with children’s symbols of the winter holidays,” Schnitzer told The Billings Gazette.
What he couldn’t have anticipated was the response to the hateful vandalism. As he and others in the local Jewish community addressed the harassment through less public means, out of safety concerns, many others in the community refused to stand by. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
The story of the response to that broken window continues to be told. From its first appearance in the Gazette, then on to the New York Times, to PBS, to a made-for-TV movie, Billings’ response continues to serve as an example of a community becoming stronger, not weaker. The local hate groups from the early 1990s have come and gone, but the group Not In Our Town remains 30 years later.
“It’s the model story of a community coming together,” said Congregation Beth Aaron Rabbi Mark Kula.
The Start of a Movement
The Not In Our Town response attracted news coverage across the world, culminating in arguably its single biggest spotlight in a 1995 PBS special. Named after a phrase displayed on Universal Athletics store sign that winter, the documentary soon inspired public schools, college campuses, religious organizations and town coalitions across the country while the film crew continued to spread the message of the original story through follow-up pieces.
The Billings Gazette published a full-page menorah with a message of solidarity that readers could post in their own windows. The message to haters was, if you want to smash the windows displaying menorahs, here’s 50,000 of them.
Jewish support within Montana has also grown since the original act of solidarity. Kula, who has served as a rabbi throughout Montana since 2018, first heard the story while he was living in Miami and dedicated a candle-lighting ceremony during the Hanukkah of 1993 to the Jewish community in Billings.
“We felt camaraderie. I knew nothing about Billings at the time, but it was in the news and we wanted to show support for our brothers and sisters who were affected by that incident,” he said.
That camaraderie has sustained over the years with Montana since expanding its Jewish community with new Chabad Lubavitch centers opening in Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell and Billings and The Montana Jewish Project purchasing the Temple Emanu-El, Montana’s oldest synagogue, in Helena. Their ultimate goal is to re-open it as a statewide center for Jewish life while also enhancing interfaith opportunities and combating anti-Semitism in Montana schools. This year, Kula, who also serves as the rabbi for the University of Montana, will meet with various schools in Missoula to teach students about Hanukkah traditions.
Various organizations like The Montana Human Rights Network, the Billings chapter of Not In Our Town and Forward Montana have also remained active over the years with efforts to end anti-Semitism throughout the state.
A Waxing and Waning Issue
Despite the precedent it may have set for combating anti-Semitism, all those involved with its beginnings agree that the issue is far from over. Among the letters he received praising Billings for its efforts, Schnitzer recalls one from a woman wanting to relocate from her intolerant Midwest community to Billings. He was honest with her, saying that Billings still had a ways to go before becoming the sort of haven it could be and that her current community should follow the example set by Billings.
“It waxes and wanes. It re-directs itself — and amazingly sometimes how it does — and even some majority groups can feel it,” he said of the trends of anti-Semitism over time.
In recent years, Montana has experienced both large- and small-scale acts of anti-Semitism statewide. Swastika graffiti, threatening phone calls, hateful pamphlets littered across cities, and most notably an increased presence of neo-Nazis in Whitefish have all been reported recently, with The Montana Board of Crime Control reporting a rise in hate crimes from 2017 to 2020.
Billings-born filmmaker Marshall Granger, 31, grew up hearing the Not In Our Town story, which initially gave him a sense of security and acceptance in identifying as Jewish throughout his childhood. It wasn’t until one day in middle school when he wore a yarmulke that he first experienced anti-Jewish harassment from some of his classmates and realized that it was an issue yet to be solved. Harassment would continue intermittently as he would later discover the new generation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis and their prevalence in northern, sparsely-populated states like Montana.
“It cast a long shadow over my life,” he said.
A Lasting Legacy
What has also persisted throughout Montana is that each public display of hate is being immediately followed by public reactions condemning it. Although they can agree that putting an end to anti-Semitism is highly unlikely for now, those who were involved in the original events in Billings agree that the methods to addressing it on a local level have remained effective over time.
Tactics that continue to work include publicly denouncing any hate speech or action, engendering curiosity for all points of view, and continuing to educate the public about Judaism and anti-Semitism, according to Kula.
He added that the most recent wave of hate groups today can be pointed to factors like social media spreading hateful messages and perceived disenfranchisement, fear and uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the human nature to seek a scapegoat.
The most effective way in confronting this, he believes, is over a cup of coffee.
“When you meet people, it’s hard to hate them,” he said.
Recent events across Montana highlighting Jewish education include an exhibit by the American Library Association and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum entitled, “Americans and the Holocaust” that was featured at the Billings Public Library last month, the Montana Jewish Project providing “curriculum boxes” to fourth-grade teachers across the state, and Kula speaking at Missoula schools to teach children about Hanukkah.
Outside of Montana, Granger, who moved to Los Angeles in 2019, produced the critically acclaimed film “We Burn Like This,” which concerns the struggles of a young Jewish woman in Billings who experiences similar types of anti-Semitism. Last year, the book “Red and Green and Blue and White,” a fictionalized re-telling of the original story for children, was released by author Lee Wind.
Nearly 30 years after the fact, Schnitzer still receives requests for interviews about the story every winter and continues to hear it mentioned across the world. Whenever he tells someone he’s from Billings and they ask if he knows about it, he always tells them he doesn’t so that he can hear their version. While certain details have changed over time, its core message remains as relevant as ever and continues to inspire.
“They know the story, but not very exact, which is OK,” Schnitzer said. “It has a message for them and they wouldn’t have brought it up (if it didn’t). So letting them recount their story and message is really pretty interesting.”