Saturday, December 17, 2011

Menorahs in December: How the People of Billings Montana Rejected Religious Hatred

The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate by Janice Cohn

In 1993, in Billings, Montana there were displays of bigotry based on religion, race, and sexual orientation.

White supremacists desecrated a Jewish cemetery, made harassing phone calls to Jewish homes, painted swastikas on the home of an inter-racial couple, and so on. But then something happened in 1993 involving a Jewish menorah that triggered a positive reaction by thousands of people.

On December 2 of that year, a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a 5-year-old Jewish boy, Isaac Schnitzer, who was displaying a Hanukkah menorah.

When the Schnitzer family reported the incident to the police, law enforcement recommended removing the menorah from their window.

Horrified, the town responded. The Billings Gazette printed a full-page menorah, which thousands of citizens pasted in their own windows in a show of solidarity that was trumpeted by the world media as an example of how one small community stood up to hate.

The story inspired books, articles, a Life magazine photo spread and the 1995 documentary "Not In Our Town" by California filmmakers Patrice O'Neill and Rhian Miller.

That prize-winning film - and a follow-up documentary a year later - galvanized community-based tolerance campaigns based on the Billings model in hundreds of U.S. cities.

Town leaders were feted at the White House, and the city received national awards from Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Raoul Wallenberg Committee.

To commemorate the 1993 year of violence and the anti-hate campaign that followed, church leaders, police, and administration officials, and representatives of local rights groups showed up to talk about how the city could still improve. A reinvigorated Not In Our Town Committee is moving forward to address lingering minority grievances.

The brick-throwing incident at the Schnitzer home catapulted the community into the national limelight.

"In 1993, there were 80,000 residents and just 50 Jewish families. Most of the people in Billings had never met a Jew," says New York psychotherapist Janice Cohn, author of "The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate," a children's book based on the Billings incident.

The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate by Janice Cohn

This picture book tells the true story of an inspiring event: when windows with Hanukkah menorahs become targets for rock throwers in Billings, Montana in 1993, thousands of non-Jewish people put pictures of menorahs in their windows, dramatically reducing the number of hate crimes in their city. The story itself is so compelling and heartwarming it has its own power. Great for children aged five- to 10-years old.

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