When neighbors held light to the darkness

When neighbors held light to the darkness

One day in December 1993, residents of Billings, Montana, woke up to an unusual message: “On Dec. 2, someone twisted by hate threw a brick through the window of the home of one of our neighbors: a Jewish family who chose to celebrate the holiday season by displaying a symbol of faith — a menora — for all to see,” it read. “Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menora as a symbol of something else: our determination to live together in harmony, and our dedication to the principle of religious liberty embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Were these the words of a rabbi delivered as a sermon from the bima? No: They were written and published in an editorial by the courageous non-Jewish editor of the Billings Gazette. Accompanying the editorial was a full-page, four-color menora, its candles reaching out seemingly to illuminate the dark Montana sky.

Ten days earlier, on the eve of Hanukka, six-year-old Isaac Schnitzer had pasted a paper menora onto his bedroom window. The following evening, a concrete block shattered the glass. Had Isaac been asleep, he could have been severely injured or killed. Skinheads had come to town.

Within a few days, they had committed other acts of violence and intimidation. A Native American church was spray-painted with bright red swastikas. Parishioners at a small African-American church were menaced by bullies as they prayed at Sunday morning services. There were assaults on gays and lesbians. The town’s only Jewish cemetery was desecrated and numerous grave markers were toppled. The terror was stepped up and created growing fear that spread as a cancerous growth throughout the community.

But one woman would not be intimidated. Isaac’s mom, Tammie, decided to fight back. The lifelong Billings resident was raised as a Lutheran and converted as an adult to Judaism. She eventually was elected as the first woman president of the town’s only synagogue.

She sought help but was met with denial and refusals to take action.

She drove many miles with her two young children in order to seek help from her U.S. representative. She met with local authorities and was told that had the menora not been in her son’s window, chances are it would not have caught the attention of bigots and hate-mongers. And when a bullet smashed the windshield of her car, she was informed that it probably came from a hunter’s misfired rifle.

Finally, in desperation, she met with the editor of the Gazette, and asked for his help. He responded with an editorial quoted above, accompanied by an illustration of a menora that he asked readers to cut out and display in their windows in an act of tolerance and solidarity.

Almost immediately the good people of Billings became energized. The Gazette’s paper menoras appeared on windows and doors everywhere. But the skinheads became more brazen and aimed their violence at the homes and stores where the menoras were displayed. But the residents were not deterred, and within a few days, more than 10,000 paper menoras appeared throughout town, on the homes and businesses of people of every faith and persuasion. The vandalism suddenly ceased; the town was at peace.

But that’s not the end of the story. President Bill Clinton appointed Tammie Schnitzer to the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. PBS produced and aired a documentary Not in Our Town showcasing the Billings mass protest. Her activism spurred the creation of a nationwide anti-hate organization that provides films, printed material, and resources to help other communities fight against bigotry. In 2014, Billings will host a national conference on hate crimes and a reunion of those who suffered through the 1993 episode.

Twenty years ago, the Schnitzer family’s neighbors spoke out loudly. Tammie Schnitzer had shown her son and everyone else how to overcome fear, intolerance, and hatred. Together, one courageous newspaper editor and one woman stood up to hate-mongers and defeated intolerance and apathy.

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