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Whitefish Celebrates Hanukkah In Spite Of Harassment

A paper menorah distributed in Whitefish by Love Lives Here during Hanukkah In 2016.
Nicky Ouellet
Montana Public Radio
One of the paper menorahs Love Lives Here is distributing in Whitefish this Hanukkah

A few days before the start of Hanukkah, a small group gathered on a street corner in downtown Whitefish, holding stacks of paper menorahs. Joan Vetter Ehrenberg, a volunteer for Love Lives Here, a branch of the Montana Human Rights Network, reads an explanation from the back of the menorah:

"Obviously in response to the anti-semitic targeting of our local friends and neighbors in Whitefish, Love Lives Here invites everyone in the valley to hang a menorah in the window ..."

It’s been two weeks since a neo-Nazi website posted photos and contact information for several Jewish people in Whitefish and encouraged online harassment. Three families in town and a dozen businesses were targeted. Vetter Ehrenberg explains the paper menorahs are a show of solidarity:

"What we're doing now is important, is community," she says. "It's going to take a while for us to get our message through to folks, so understand that it's small steps of kindness and action that accumulate towards something that will make a difference."

Vetter Ehrenberg hands out the paper menorahs and a half-dozen volunteers disperse to deliver them around town.

One of them, Dianne Grove, says, "It's a beautiful, chilly evening to spread some love around Whitefish."

Grove has lived here for almost 50 years, long enough, she says, to know the character of the town:

"You know, it's always been a community that has worked together and helped one another, that's why it seems so strange there's somebody here that would divide," she says.

Grove walks up to each house on Columbia Avenue, sliding a paper menorah in the door frame.

I asked her if she expects most people will hang up the menorahs.

"I don't know," she answered. "I would hope that they would. It's interesting when it comes to saying, taking action, and you never know if that's going to be acceptable to people or not. We'll just hope so."

A few mornings later, paper menorahs peek from half the windows in downtown neighborhoods. It’s a small thing, but for people who celebrate Hanukkah every year as part of their Jewish faith, seeing menorahs in their neighbors’ windows means a lot.

"I'm actually more inspired to celebrate the holiday now because of everything going on," says one member of the Flathead Valley's 100 or so Jewish families. "You know, like, put out the menorah, put up the lights. I even have a Christmas tree."

This woman asked me not to use her name because she doesn’t want to risk getting targeted for online harassment, adding she feels like she already has.

"If you're from the human race and somebody gets targeted, then everybody gets targeted," she says. "I'm seeing this community really pull it together, really step forward. I've always seen that here, it's part of what's so enjoyable about living in Whitefish, is the people that live here and the people that come here."

She says the people fanning the anti-semitic flames are playing to our base nature.

"We all have a low nature, we all have a high nature," she says. "Some of us live more in the low nature, some of us more in the high and some of us flip in between. The tendency of the mind is to divide, is to separate, and we all have to work with our mind and practice, because it is practice, aiming towards harmonizing and uniting versus dividing. Dividing is a tendency, it's always been there. Our work as human beings is to work toward the higher."

She says it’s fitting that Christmas and Hanukkah arrived at the same time this year.

"I symbolically look at that and take that as info that we're meant to step into more unity, not division," she says. 

On the third night of Hanukkah, Monday, Hilary Shaw leads her family and some friends as they sing and light the candles on her family’s three menorahs in their home in Whitefish.

"My favorite part of Hanukkah is lighting the candles together as a family," Shaw says. "Standing around the light and singing, and thinking about my family members who are far away, and creating that tradition of light with my daughter and my husband."

Shaw says this year, she’s thinking about part of the Hanukkah story that’s not often told. The traditional story is that after a long war, when the Jews reclaimed Jerusalem from the Greek Empire, they set about cleansing the Second Temple so they could again practice their faith. Part of that meant burning sacred oil constantly. They only had enough for one night, but, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. This is why Hanukkah is sometimes called the “celebration of lights.”

But that’s only part of the story, Shaw says, and it’s only the nice part. She says this story leaves out the bloody war and the sometimes shameful things the Jewish army did to reclaim their land and traditions.

"To me, this is kind of a lost opportunity, because we could be having conversations about what the war was like and what mistakes were made and who do we want to be in our own resistance and in our protest," Shaw says. "When we're fighting for our freedom, how do we treat the freedom of others? These are all conversations that are now missing, which are very relevant to us now as we figure out how we want to oppose and speak out against voices of white supremacy and anti-semitism and bigotry and hatred. This story could serve as a reminder that we need to hold on to the light."

Shaw says she sees people in Whitefish having those conversations now.

"It's like resistance, really," she says, "and I don't mean in the protest sort. I mean literally, resisting forces of hatred and sadness and responding with compassion."

Shaw says in its own way, using her real name in this interview is part of that. Her grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor, used to warn her to shy away from direct actions like this, but Shaw chooses not to.

"I live in a different world where I don't have to lie low," Shaw says. "I can choose to, but I don't have to. I have a community that stands up for me and surrounds me in love. I have law enforcement, and I have all sorts of institutions and structures in place that make it safe for me to speak out and I'm very grateful for that. That's not lost on me for a moment."

In an unusual move on Tuesday, several of Montana’s top elected leaders issued a joint statement condemning the recent anti-semitic harassment.

Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, Representative Ryan Zinke, Governor Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox penned the bipartisan open letter.

"I stand with leaders of Montana to say to those few who seek to publicize anti-semitic views that they shall find no safe haven in Montana," Senator Daines said. "Any demonstration or threat of intimidation against any Montanans’ religious liberty will not be tolerated."

Later on Tuesday, the tribal council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes issued a statement commending the leadership in their opposition of hatred and bigotry, and joined them in sending, “a clear message that ignorance, hatred and threats of violence are unacceptable and have no place in the town of Whitefish, or in any other community in Montana or across this nation.”

Hanukkah lasts this year from December 24 through January 1.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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