Recently reclaimed by the Jewish community, Temple Emanu-El (Hebrew for “God be with us”) was the first synagogue constructed between St. Paul and Portland and the oldest Jewish house of worship in Montana.
Montana’s Jewish community was flourishing by the 1870s. In 1867, Helena directories reported that out of twenty dry goods stores, Jews owned seventeen. By 1877, a quarter of the Board of Trade was Jewish. The Jewish community also helped the city recover from fire damage, a frequent hassle. Many Jewish migrants came to Montana for the gold rushes from places like Germany and Poland. In 1866, they organized the United Hebrew Benevolent Society, the forerunner to Congregation Emanu-El. As the railroad brought more migrants in the 1880s, they hired a rabbi and made plans for a synagogue. In 1890, the governor J.K. Toole laid the cornerstone of Temple Emanu-El, highlighting the already prominent status of the Jewish community.
Helena architects Heinlein and Mathias worked with the congregation to design Temple Emanu-El, which they built close to Christian churches and not far from the state capitol. Moorish Revival is in the distinctive architecture of the building, reflected in the pointed arch entry, keyhole windows, and copper onion-shaped domes studded with golden Stars of David. Romanesque features can also be identified in arched windows and heavy stonework. Both styles were popular in synagogues of late nineteenth century America. The builders used locally quarried granite as well as gray and red sandstone for the base and sides. The interior originally contained a thirty-foot ceiling sanctuary that sat 300 people. Distinguished and founding members held a dedication ceremony in 1891, where the local papers touted it as helping Helena to become “Queen City of the Rockies.”
The building is also notable as an example of adaptive reuse. The Jewish population dwindled by the 1930s, partly due to the Great Depression. Congregation Emanu-El looked to sell, and after unsuccessful attempts, the state of Montana bought it in 1937 for a token price of $1.00. The state promised to use it for a “social purpose” and fulfilled this aim by installing in it the Department of Public Welfare, which distributed relief during the Great Depression. The state renovated the temple by sand-blasting religious inscriptions and symbols off the building, as well as removing the onion-shaped domes. It then repurposed these materials elsewhere. It also added a second floor, but left the keyhole windows and front facade otherwise undisturbed. After the department was abolished in the 1970s, the building again fell into disuse. The small Jewish population feared that it would be demolished until the Catholic Diocese of Helena bought it in 1981.
Jerry Klinger, founding president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, brought renewed interest to the synagogue when he organized a ceremony recognizing its 110th anniversary in 2001. Historians placed it on the National Register of Historic Places soon after in 2002.
Recently, in August 2022, Temple Emanu-El returned to the Jewish community when the Montana Jewish Project purchased it from the Catholic Diocese. Prior to the reacquisition, Helena was one of only four state capitals without a synagogue. It will now become a statewide center for Jewish life in Montana.