Montana, long known as “Big Sky” territory, is vast and beautiful. One might assume there is room enough for everyone. Yet over the last decade the five-state area of Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana has been designated a “white homeland” for the Aryan Nation. White supremacist groups have targeted nonwhites, Jews, gays, and lesbians. In Billings, Montana, there were many hate crimes, including the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, threatening phone calls to Jewish citizens, and swastikas painted on the home of an interracial couple. But it was something else that activated the people of faith and good will throughout the entire community.
On December 2, 1993, a brick was thrown through five-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s bedroom window. The brick and shards of glass were strewn all over the child’s bed. The reason? A menorah and other symbols of Jewish faith were stenciled on the glass as part of the family’s Hanukkah celebrations. The account of the incident in the Billings Gazette the next day described Isaac’s mother, Tammie Schnitzer, as being troubled by the advice she got from the investigating officer. He suggested she remove the symbols. How would she explain this to her son? Another mother in Billings was deeply touched by that question. She tried to imagine explaining to her children that they couldn’t have a Christmas tree in the window, because it wasn’t safe. She remembered what happened when Hitler ordered the king of Denmark, to force all Danish Jews to wear Stars of David. The order was never carried out, because the king himself and many other Danes chose to wear the yellow stars. The Nazi’s lost the ability to find their “enemies.”
There are several dozen Jewish families in Billings. This kind of tactic would effectively deter violence if enough people got involved. So Margaret McDonald phoned her pastor, Rev. Keith Torney at First Congregational United Church of Christ, and asked what he thought of having Sunday School children make paper cut-out menorahs for their own windows. The following week hundreds of menorahs appeared in the windows of Christian homes. When asked about the danger of this action, Police Chief Wayne Inman told callers, “There’s greater risk in not doing it.” By the end of the week at least six thousand homes (some accounts estimated up to ten thousand) were decorated with menorahs.
A sporting goods store got involved by displaying “Not in Our Town! No Hate, No Violence, Peace on Earth,” on its large billboard. Someone shot at it. Townspeople organized a vigil outside the synagogue during Sabbath services. That same night bricks and bullets shattered windows at Central Catholic High School, where an electric marquee read, “Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends.” The cat of a family with a menorah was killed with an arroh. Six non-Jewish families had their car and house windows shattered. One car had a note that said “Jew lover.”
Eventually these incidents waned, but people continued in their efforts to support one another against hate crimes. During the Passover holiday, 250 Christians joined their Jewish brothers and sisters in a traditional seder. New friendships formed, new traditions started, and greater mutual understanding and respect have been achieved. The next winger families all over Billings took out their menorahs to reaffirm their commitment to peace and religious tolerance.
-Walter Wink in Richard Rohr’s book, Action in Contemplation