Lone Rabbi at Center of Montana’s Neo-Nazi Storm
In 2014, when Rabbi Francine Green Roston decided to leave her Conservative pulpit in South Orange, N.J., and move with her husband and kids to the remote town of Whitefish, in northwestern Montana, she knew they were in for big changes.
They’d be trading a work-centered East Coast life for a rural Western town of 6,000, where the big attraction is nearby Glacier National Park. Her kids would be moving from a Jewish day school to schools where practically everyone is white and Christian. And buying kosher meat would no longer be as simple as going to the supermarket.
But what Roston could not anticipate was that she would find herself at the center of a confrontation between Jews and supporters of a local neo-Nazi that would be making news all over the country and stoking anxiety about the rise of the so-called alt-right movement.
“We never expected to be the target of a hate campaign,” Roston wrote in a widely circulated letter sent in the beginning of the year to rabbis around the country. “This is a time of great anxiety for our Glacier Jewish Community and the city of Whitefish.”
Whitefish is the hometown of white nationalist leader Richard B. Spencer, a vocal supporter of Donald Trump who a week after the election made national headlines by delivering a speech at a neo-Nazi conference in Washington, D.C., that ended with Spencer roaring, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” to a smattering of Nazi salutes.
In the ensuing weeks, the small Jewish community—the rabbi counts about 100 known Jewish households in Whitefish and nearby Kalispell—was subject to a concerted campaign of online harassment and threats. In mid-December, The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, published a post calling on followers to “take action” against Jews in Whitefish, ostensibly because the negative attention surrounding Spencer’s group was making it difficult for his mother to sell the family property in Whitefish that was listed in public records as the group’s primary office. The Daily Stormer post listed the names, email addresses, phone numbers and physical addresses of several Jewish residents of Whitefish, prompting local police to step up security measures.
Meanwhile, Jews and others disturbed by the alt-right agitation mounted their own counter-campaign. They held community meetings, distributed “Love Lives Here” signs and held a “Love Not Hate” rally in downtown Whitefish on January 7 that brought out hundreds of supporters in sub-zero temperatures. They also asked Montana residents and businesses to post menorahs or a picture of a menorah in their windows during Chanukah as a sign of solidarity. That effort echoed a famous act of solidarity in Billings, Mont., in 1993, in which hundreds of non-Jews posted menorahs in their windows after an unknown assailant threw a brick through the bedroom window of a Jewish home displaying a menorah.
“In our darkest nights this winter, this state, our elected representatives, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, you all lifted us up,” Roston said in a speech to the crowd at the January rally, wearing a colorful talit over her long winter coat. “You let us know we are not alone.”
The Neo-Nazis, meanwhile, were in the midst of organizing their own rally in Whitefish. According to a post on The Daily Stormer, participants would be carrying weapons, a Hamas member would participate and the march would take place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But just days before the planned demonstration, Whitefish city officials denied a permit to the group, saying it had failed to file the necessary paperwork. Organizers said they were postponing but not canceling the march.
Throughout it all, Roston has tried to keep a low profile while rallying locals against the hate campaign and serving as one of the most visible representatives of the local Jewish community. After all, she is the only rabbi in town.
Roston didn’t plan to be the town’s rabbi when she moved to Whitefish. When she left her New Jersey congregation of more than 500 members in 2014, she was burnt out from the rabbinate and shul politics and looking to lead a quieter lifestyle where she could have dinner with her family and spend more time outdoors. She and her husband had fallen in love with Whitefish on successive summer trips and decided it was time to drop out of the yuppie rat race and live the dream.
“As a congregational rabbi, there’s so much you’re giving out to people, and you have to make sure you have enough spiritual energy coming in. I was really drained,” Roston said. “In nature I really refuel. I feel more connected with God’s power and presence in the world.” In Whitefish, she could take walks in the woods every day. On Shabbat, instead of going to synagogue, she might go for a hike or take a kayak out on the lake.
Very quickly, though, Roston began to plant Jewish roots in her new community. She tried to track down all the Jews she could and began organizing occasional get-togethers: Shabbat services in people’s homes, a Purim party, Yom Kippur services. Soon, Roston was organizing a formal community association for Jews in the area, known as the Flathead Valley.
Today, the association, known as the Glacier Jewish Community-B’nai Shalom, holds Shabbat services once a month, and Roston is formally its rabbi. Though Roston hails from a Conservative background—she was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and was the movement’s first female rabbi to serve in a congregation of more than 500 members—B’nai Shalom is nondenominational and open to all.
The harassment following Trump’s election wasn’t the first time Roston had experienced anti-Semitism in Whitefish. During their first year in town, Roston’s son, now in eighth grade, watched his classmates sing “Happy Birthday” to Hitler on April 20. In her daughter’s 11th grade AP history class, a classmate declared that the Holocaust wasn’t that bad. Roston wrote about the experience in Kveller, the Jewish parenting website.
But nothing resembled the harassment Whitefish Jews have experienced since Trump’s election. After neo-Nazis announced plans to march through Whitefish, Roston said the Jewish community would not hold a counter-demonstration—something experts warned only would encourage the attention-seeking extremists—but instead held a movie party featuring matzah ball soup at a safe, undisclosed location.
Roston encouraged people around the country who want to support local Jews to send donations either to the Montana Human Rights Network or to Whitefish Jews through the Secure Community Network, a national Jewish security program that has agreed to spend 100 percent of all Whitefish-directed donations on security measures for Jews in Montana.
“People don’t really move here with Jewish community as a priority, but the people here still have a sense of Jewish identity,” she said.
Now that the neo-Nazi issue has come to the fore, that Jewish identity might be more heightened than ever—something good, perhaps, to come out of the alt-right hate campaign.