Amid bitterly cold temperatures, two young Jewish rabbis lit a Menorah in front of the Great Falls Civic Center Monday evening, marking the start of the fourth day of Hanukkah.
Rabbi Yankie Shemtov of Tucson, Ariz., told eight hardy Jewish souls that the ceremony in Great Falls, at 9 degrees below zero, marked the coldest lighting of a Menorah in the United States on Monday.
“We win,” Shemtov said with a laugh.
Shemtov and Rabbi Shimon Ash of Melbourne, Australia, held an abbreviated ceremony that lasted about five minutes. Shemtov offered blessings, and spectators lustily sang three songs before the celebration moved indoors to a lower northside home.
The two rabbis saw firsthand the hardiness of some in the Great Falls Jewish community as Aaron Weissman rode his bicycle, outfitted with snow tires, away from the ceremony.
Shemtov and Ash are taking part in a whirlwind, weeklong trip helping to light Menorahs across Montana, with Great Falls the lone stop Monday. Their vehicle features a battery-operated Menorah on the roof.
In Helena on Sunday, the pair stopped to get gas with their Menorah-topped car.
“Some woman at the gas station said, ‘Happy Hanukkah,'” Ash said.
“The people of Montana are the nicest people,” Shemtov added.
One candle is lighted every day of the eight-day celebration also known as Chanukah. The traditional Jewish Festival of Lights began Friday at sunset and lasts eight days through Saturday evening.
Hanukkah celebrates a victory more than 2,100 years ago by Jewish Macabees over Syrian Greeks. The Jewish festival usually wraps up before the Christian holiday of Christmas is observed on Dec. 25; its dates vary from year to year.
People of the Jewish faith in Montana are taking a higher profile this fall, including the formal lighting of the Menorah at the Great Falls Civic Center. The Great Falls Hebrew Association donated a large electric outdoor Menorah to the city of Great Falls this month, and lit it Friday.
“We hope that this addition to the existing holiday display will help build acceptance and understanding among our city’s residents,” the Great Falls group said in a news release.
Monday’s lighting featured the same electric Menorah.
Great Falls has a small but strong Jewish community, said Rabbi Chaim Bruk at the Chabad Lubavitch center in Bozeman.
“It’s a really wonderful group of people,” said Bruk, who visits the Great Falls Jewish community nine or 10 times a year. Chabad Lubavitch is the Montana chapter of the world’s largest Jewish outreach organization.
Bruk said Montana had a thriving Jewish community in its early days in mining towns such as Butte and Helena.
A Dec. 5 New York Times article noted Butte, considered a metropolis at the start of the 20th century, featured kosher markets, a Jewish mayor and three synagogues, while Helena sported an 1891 Temple Emanu-El that seated 500 people.
Bruk said the strong surge of Jewish people into Montana began to fade “when the mining business wasn’t so strong anymore.” Growth in Montana in the last few decades has helped spur “a renaissance of Jewish life” in Big Sky Country, the rabbi added.
“We’re still a tiny minority,” he said. Yet Montanans of the Jewish faith are a strong and growing group, Bruk reported.
Ash and Shemtov said the Hanukkah tradition of lighting candles offers a message that everyone can appreciate.
“Light is goodness,” Shemtov said.
Good deeds each day can brighten what seems to be a darker and darker world, according to Ash.
“It’s our job to add a little light into the world,” he said.