Temple Emanu-El
The first Jewish synagogue between St. Paul and Portland - 1891
515 North Ewing at 10th Avenue

Returned to Jewish Hands in August, 2022

Temple Emanu-El, circa 1903


Temple Emanu-El lithograph by Ward Bros., Columbus, Ohio


To Ornament the City
By Ellen Baumler
Published in Signature Montana, Summer 2008

Helena's historic tree-lined North Ewing Street was once home to prominent merchants, bankers, lawyers, and governors. The casual visitor, however, would never guess that one of the most important landmarks in the Northwest still graces the streetscape. Tucked across a parking lot south of the historic First Presbyterian Church, and east of the celebrated St. Helena Cathedral, is another house of worship that once held a place of honor among Helena's architectural and cultural landmarks. Today the Offices of the Helena Diocese occupy the former Temple Emanu-El, the first Jewish synagogue between St. Paul and Portland. The building not only represents the crowning achievement of Helena's once-vibrant Jewish community, it also is a stunning example of preservation and adaptive reuse.

Montana's earliest Jewish pioneers came west from Prussia, Bavaria, Austria, and Poland. Opportunity drew these immigrants to the new mining settlements where business as well as religious beliefs brought them together. In Helena, the United Hebrew Benevolent Society, forerunner of the organized Temple congregation, formed in 1866. Its members maintained Jewish holidays, assisted the needy, and established the Home of Peace-Montana's oldest active Jewish cemetery. By 1867, Jews owned seventeen of Helena's twenty dry goods stores and Jewish merchants and service providers had permanently settled with their families in the future capital.

The Jewish community helped stabilize a fragile economy when disastrous fires devastated the business district between 1869 and 1874. Jewish merchants and businessmen had ties to a financial network that reached well beyond the Montana frontier, allowing them the resources to rebuild, sometimes again and again. Marcus Lissner, who ran Helena's acclaimed International Hotel for example, lost his uninsured hostelry and rebuilt it so many times during the 1860s and 1870s that it became known as "the Phoenix."

At the end of the 1870s, twenty-percent of Helena's elite Board of Trade was Jewish. The Masonic lodges embraced many Jewish members, and citizens elected Jews to public office. The Jewish community boasted lawyers, judges, bankers, merchants, and service providers who owned some of Helena's most beautiful homes. The prestigious Montana Club counted Jews among its members.

The congregation, however, was without a rabbi and a place of its own to worship. Merchant Herman Gans, while on a buying trip to New York, persuaded Rabbi Samuel Schulmann to come to Helena. Educated in Berlin, Rabbi Schulman brought with him German Reform Judaism, which fit well with Helena's many German Jews. Rabbi Schulman immediately took up the cause to build a temple.

In October of 1890, the Helena community gathered as Governor J.K. Toole laid the cornerstone. "Conscious of the sacred duty which I have been invited to perform," said Governor Toole, "…I now have the honor of laying the first cornerstone of the first Jewish temple in the State of Montana." With that, the governor struck the hollow granite block one blow with a mallet as ceremony required. Herman Gans then vigorously dealt the stone three more blows. Inscribed with the date 5651 according to the Hebrew calendar, the granite block still marks the building's northwest corner. Placed inside were the names of congregation members and cards of those present, coins, a quartz specimen, copies of the Helena Independent and other items. Voices soared with the wind on that October afternoon and the words carried through the neighborhood, "Let pious hearts rejoice, to rear a sacred shrine…."

Architects Frederick Heinlein and Thomas F. Mathias, who were not Jewish, learned how to design the synagogue from its members. Keyhole windows borrowed from the Moorish style and Byzantine rose windows combined with heavy stonework and Romanesque style arches. Twin towers, originally capped with exotic black star-spangled "onion" domes, made the temple a most striking building. Stained glass of many colors softened the rich interior of crimson, blue, and gold. The sanctuary rose to a thirty-foot ceiling with a seating capacity of three hundred. Seating could expand to five hundred with the addition of removable galleries. All of Helena was proud of the temple, which added considerably to the cosmopolitan aspirations of the Queen City of the Rockies.

The congregation held an open house in April 1891. The magnificent new temple, tastefully adorned with smilax and potted plants, overflowed with curious visitors from all over the region. Emotion overcame the little band who kept their faith alive for more than twenty-four years. Herman Gans, the congregation president, choked back tears as he explained, "…the Jewish heart is ever loyal to the god of the fathers…no matter how far removed from a religious center." It was apparent to all how much this house of worship meant.

The following year, Rabbi Schulmann moved on and the congregation was again adrift without a spiritual leader. Economic difficulties and a lack of local job opportunities as the second generation of these pioneers came of age severely diminished the congregation. By the 1930s, the small remnant group could not maintain the synagogue. Their leader, Norman Winestine, sadly arranged for the sale of the organ and pews to the Seventh Day Adventists. The State of Montana acquired the temple for a token price of one dollar and a promise to use the building for a "good and social purpose."

The state readied the former temple for its new function as offices for Social and Rehabilitation Services, dividing the sanctuary into two stories and removing all religious symbolism. Sandblasting of the Hebrew inscription, "Gate to the Eternal," above the entry and removal of the star-studded, painted domes visually divested Helena of a significant part of its cultural heritage. The copper was likely reused to re-clad the State Capitol's dome at about the same time. The keyhole windows, some of colored stained glass, and the Hebrew year on the cornerstone, however, remained undisturbed [Remodeling began in late 1935, but a permit was not issued for the work until January of 1936. - KB].

That the state would so carefully remodel the temple during the depressed 1930s is a marvel. The unknown architect who added the second story in such a way that it hardly disturbed the multi-storied windows deserves much credit for his sensitivity. At a time when preservation and adaptive reuse were hardly in an architect's vocabulary, the work done to convert the temple is a masterpiece of care and consideration and one of the first preservation efforts in the West.

After decades of office use, the temple stood vacant from 1976 to 1980, serving as off-site storage for the Montana Historical Society. Norman Winestine feared its demolition. He was discouraged and disappointed when the state put it up for sale. But when the Catholic Diocese of Helena purchased the former temple for $83,000, the state more than recouped its small investment and everyone came out ahead. Since 1981, the beloved Temple Emanu-El has been well cared for and maintained as offices of the diocese and the building has come full circle. Distinguished with listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, the former Temple Emnu-El continues to reflect the intent of its congregation. When Herman Gans accepted the keys to the building at its dedication in 1891, he explained to the crowd that the temple was to be an honor to Helena's Jewish pioneers and an ornament to the city they loved. Through careful stewardship, the legacy endures.

Temple Emanu-El, 1891



Recent Photo of the Diocese of Helena


Temple Emanu-El, Seen at the Cornerstone Ceremony of the First Presbyterian Church, 1891


A Descendant of Jewish Pioneers Unveils Plaque, 2001


Historical plaque unveiled, April 21, 2001. Sydney Silverman Lindauer is removing a cloth from a plaque on the building. Sydney came from Red Bluff, CA at age 98 to share the important occasion. She died two years later at 100. She was the granddaughter of Jewish pioneers and remembered attending the synogogue and went to Central School. The plaque was funded by Maryland stockbroker Jerry Klinger. The story from the Independent Record.

In 2022, the building was purchased from the Catholic Diocese of Helena by the Montana Jewish Project.

An Original Stained Glass Window, Still Aglow

Many Thanks to Ellen Baumler for making this feature possible!