Af­ter a year of ter­ror, the Jews of White­fish, Mon­tana, look ahead

Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By RON KAMPEAS

Around the pic­nic ta­bles at White­fish City Beach on the fi­nal Shabbat eve of last month, the Mon­tana town’s tiny Jewish com­mu­nity shared kosher hot dogs, veg­gie burg­ers and mem­o­ries of ter­ror.

In a year when white su­prem­a­cists have been as­cen­dant, at least in their public pro­file, per­haps no com­mu­nity has been harder hit than the Jews in the one-time rail stop set against a back­drop of moun­tains and bor­der­ing the town’s shim­mer­ing name­sake lake.

The election of Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent and a fever­ish de­bate among Jews and oth­ers over whether he had ac­tively courted the far­right vote raised the pro­file of the town’s best-known white su­prem­a­cist, Richard Spencer. A dis­pute be­tween a Jewish real es­tate agent and Spencer’s mother, whipped up by a neo-Nazi web­site, sparked months of ha­rass­ment, tar­get­ing in par­tic­u­lar three Jewish fam­i­lies.

Rabbi Francine Green Ros­ton, whose fam­ily was among those tar­geted, said there was no way the com­mu­nity could put be­hind it the ha­rass­ment, which re­port­edly in­cluded jar­ring phone calls and on­line on­slaughts aimed at the fam­i­lies’ chil­dren.

“Our lives will never be the same,” Ros­ton said this week in an in­ter­view, choos­ing not to de­tail the ha­rass­ment she and her fam­ily suf­fered. “But we have re­turned to what we were build­ing be­fore this hap­pened. We’re con­tin­u­ing to be part of ini­tia­tives to pro­mote strong com­mu­nity ties to fight ha­tred wher­ever it arises.”

Pos­i­tive take­aways, she said, in­clude the aware­ness of na­tional Jewish sup­port.

“Se­cure Com­mu­nity Net­work, the Jewish Fed­er­a­tions of North Amer­ica and the Anti-Defama­tion League were on the ground sup­port­ing us in the first week,” she said. SCN is a se­cu­rity ser­vice backed by the fed­er­a­tions and the Con­fer­ence of Pres­i­dents of Ma­jor Amer­i­can Jewish Or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Such at­ten­tion was un­usual for a Jewish com­mu­nity num­ber­ing per­haps 60 in White­fish and a cou­ple of hun­dred more in the sur­round­ing Flat­head County. Ros­ton was in the habit of say­ing she prac­ticed “pioneer Ju­daism” in a state with no lo­cal fed­er­a­tion and no na­tional af­fil­i­a­tions.

“We felt the sup­port and con­nec­tion of the Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity,” she said. Not just from the or­ga­ni­za­tions, she said, “but we re­ceived cards and let­ters and do­na­tions from com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try. The do­na­tions en­abled us to have a se­cu­rity fund, and our new nor­mal is to have a se­cu­rity guard at our large com­mu­nity gath­er­ing.”

The cy­ber at­tacks, which es­ca­lated into threat­en­ing phone calls and abu­sive snail mail, were launched late last year af­ter Spencer’s mother, Sherry, said in an on­line post­ing that Tanya Gersh, a lo­cal real es­tate agent, was pres­sur­ing her to leave the town.

The emails posted by the el­der Spencer sug­gested in­stead that she and Gersh had, in friendly con­ver­sa­tions, dis­cussed sell­ing her prop­erty. Gersh was ready to cut her fee in or­der to fa­cil­i­tate the sale.

Spencer’s post­ing prompted An­drew Anglin, a neo-Nazi who founded the Daily Stormer web­site, to write a screed on Dec. 16 call­ing on his fol­low­ers in De­cem­ber to ha­rass Gersh and her fam­ily, as well as the Ros­tons and the fam­ily of another rabbi in the area, Allen Secher.

Within a day SCN’s di­rec­tor, Paul Gold­en­berg, had com­mis­sioned a col­league in Seat­tle to drive to the com­mu­nity – no small feat in De­cem­ber, when the roads into White­fish are icy and be­set with snow. ADL Na­tional Di­rec­tor Jonathan Green­blatt also called to see how he could help.

There were also ex­pres­sions of sup­port from the lo­cal non-Jewish com­mu­nity and a com­mit­ment by lo­cal of­fi­cials to in­ten­sify di­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion.

“Af­ter the at­tacks, a group worked with in­ter­faith clergy, which we hadn’t had be­fore,” she said. There were two “Love Not Hate” ral­lies in the re­gion and di­ver­sity train­ing in the school sys­tem.

Gold­en­berg said his ex­pe­ri­ence with White­fish was the most mov­ing for him in over a decade deal­ing with Jewish se­cu­rity.

“At­tacks that specif­i­cally tar­get chil­dren are ab­hor­rent and un­think­able and would have the ca­pa­bil­ity to par­a­lyze any com­mu­nity’s abil­ity to func­tion and thrive,” he said in an in­ter­view.

Gold­en­berg said the com­mu­nity’s re­silience – the de­ter­mi­na­tion to stay put – amazed him. He was a guest of honor at the sum­mer Shabbat event, which the com­mu­nity calls its an­nual “Shab­baBBQ.”

In­deed, Ros­ton said, there has been a com­ing to­gether. She said the com­mu­nity to a per­son backed Gersh’s law­suit against Anglin. The South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter is as­sist­ing in the suit, which seeks dam­ages from Anglin for in­vad­ing Gersh’s pri­vacy and caus­ing emo­tional dis­tress.

Still, clearly there are pe­ri­ods when Ros­ton and oth­ers re­treat into the fears prompted by the cy­ber on­slaught of last win­ter. Last month’s white su­prem­a­cist march in Char­lottesville, Virginia, which in­cluded deadly vi­o­lence, trig­gered dif­fi­cult mem­o­ries for the rabbi. Richard Spencer was there to speak at a rally that Satur­day morn­ing.

In a speech at a Love Not Hate gath­er­ing af­ter Char­lottesville, Ros­ton ex­co­ri­ated Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has equiv­o­cated in con­demn­ing white su­prem­a­cists – but also won­dered about those closer to home.

“Did you know that res­i­dents of the Flat­head Val­ley through their Twit­ter ac­counts and post­ings on the Daily Stormer threat­ened White­fish res­i­dents and busi­nesses by giv­ing the Daily Stormer the names of our lo­cal busi­nesses to at­tack?” she said in her speech. “Yes, you heard me cor­rectly. We all have neigh­bors who joined the Nazis in their at­tacks on our com­mu­nity this past win­ter.” (JTA)


FROM LEFT, White­fish Mayor John Muhlfeld, Rabbi Francine Green Ros­ton and Paul Gold­en­berg, the di­rec­tor of Se­cure Com­mu­nity Net­work.

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