L'Chaim

Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 1999/27 Kislev 5760

A Story of Courage


By Janice Cohn


WE ALL GRAPPLE with how to convey the true meaning of our respective holidays to children despite the inevitable hype and commercialism. Happily, a true story which took place in Billings, Montana, several years ago provides us with one way of accomplishing this.

Many of you have heard the story, seen the documentary on public television, or read my book, The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate, which re-tells the events for children. But the story bears re-telling at this time of year --- or at any time for that matter. Children today, inundated as they are by stories of violence and diviseness, need to know that acts of courage and goodness matter; that acts of hate towards any one of us must be considered acts of hate towards all of us, and that "loving our neighbors as ourselves" is not just a nice phrase we hear in our houses of worship.

The story of Billings is in essence several stories including:

This is essentially what happened:

Econophone Billings began to be infiltrated by skin heads and members of racist groups in early 1993. Their exact number was hard to ascertain, but shortly after their arrival hate literature, targeted towards Jews, blacks, and other minorities, began to be distributed.

Wayne Inman, chief of the Billings Police Department, and Margaret MacDonald, executive director of the Montana Association of Churches, urged the town to react strongly and decisively to stop the hate mail. At first, many people thought that the hate mail should be simply ignored and that focusing attention on the hate mongers would serve to encourage them. But Inman and church leaders persisted, starting a series of "teach-ins" throughout the community, which focused on educating people about the ultimate consequences of not taking a strong stand against hate crimes even minor ones. At first few people attended, but the attendance at these meetings slowly grew and involved a cross-section of the entire community.

Though Inman and the Montana Association of Churches became the targets of a series of threats and attacks, they continued to act aggressively.

Educators, human rights advocates, and labor leaders joined Inman and the churches to form a community network that monitored and forcefully responded to the hate speeches and acts of vandalism against minorities.

Trakdata A full page advertisement was published in the town newspaper strongly condemning hatred and bigotry. More than a hundred community organizations placed their names on the ad, as did thousands of ordinary citizens. A major town rally was held, declaring the moral equivalent of war against hate crimes targeted towards the town's minorities.

Things seemed to settle down for a while, but several months later, as the holidays of Christmas and Chanukkah approached, the town's synagogue was vandalized and a series of bomb threats were received.

Shortly thereafter, two Jewish homes displaying Chanukkah menorahs were vandalized. In one case, a child's bedroom window was shattered by a rock thrown during the night. In both instances, the children were at home being cared for by sitters, while the parents were out for the evening. The Schnitzer home was one of those targeted. Brian and Tammie Schnitzer, long active in the human rights movement and in the Jewish community, spoke out eloquently and forcefully.

Immediately, a network of church and community groups sprang into action. Rev. Keith Torney of the First Congregational Church and Margaret MacDonald argued forcefully that a meaningful, symbolic gesture was needed (along with efforts to apprehend the vandals). A short time later, hundreds of families and institutions displayed such pictures. At first, several windows were broken in churches and schools, and several people had their cars vandalized. But this only strengthened the town's determination. Soon there were thousands of menorahs displayed throughout the town. The Billings Gazette printed a full-page, color picture of a menorah, urging citizens to display it on a door or window, to show their solidarity in the fight against bigotry. Thousands more were soon displayed.

A major business in town replaced its regular advertisement on a prominent billboard with a message strongly condemning the hate crimes. Other businesses followed.

Schools and churches began having discussions with children of all ages about the events that were occurring. The dangers of bigotry and the importance of fighting against it were stressed. Children's ideas were solicited and listened to. Many of these children had pictures of menorahs in their own windows, and saw their parents taking action against the hatred. Though many never personally met a Jewish or a black child, they started to think and talk about how those children must feel about being the targets of hatred. Then they began to think about what they could do to help.

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When it was time for Chanukkah services to be held in the tiny Billings synagogue, dozens and dozens of Christian citizens came to worship with their Jewish neighbors. There was not enough room to accommodate all who came. Many people stood outside the synagogue, ready to protect the worshipers and the synagogue itself.

The fight still goes on in Billings, but the hate speeches, hate literature, and hate crimes have virtually disappeared -- due to the power of community, and the power of goodness and decency -- at least for now.

The people of Billings don't consider themselves "heroes" or special or unique in any way. What happened in Billings, they point out, could happen in any town. Yes ... any town. And every town. Perhaps someday the children who hear this story will remember Billings and use its lessons in their own communities.

And not just during Christmas and Chanukkah.


JWR contributor Dr. Janice Cohn, a psycotherapist, is Chief of Consultation and Education at the Department of Psychiatry, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. The author of Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World , she is also in private practice in New York City and Montclair, New Jersey. Send your comments by clicking here.

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©1999, Dr. Janice Cohn