CONGREGATION BETH AARON: THEN AND NOW

THEN: The Billings Jewish community developed well after those in Helena and Butte, generally around the early 1900s. Billings was a railroad town and Jews, who were mainly from Eastern Europe, arrived on the newly built railroad. The new arrivals to Billings generally became peddlers or hide and fur traders. They competed with one another particularly as the more successful traders opened small mercantile stores. By 1917, there were enough Jewish men in Billings to establish a chapter of B’nai Brith. There were no religious services, and the dead were sent to Butte to be buried. 1918 became a year for change and action. The flu epidemic stressed Butte’s resources and the Butte Lodge informed Billings that they had to provide for their own. An auction became the vehicle that would finance a cemetery. The highest bidder would be able to name the congregation that would buy the land and maintain the cemetery. Louis Harron was the highest bidder and chose the name Beth Aaron, a translation of his name. The Jewish women decided that Sabbath services were needed and began to have Friday night services in their homes. Soon the group expanded and a building was needed for services and religious school. It was finished in 1940, across the street from St. Vincent Hospital at 1148 North Broadway. The building was erected to look like a residence so it would not attract too much attention. Lou Harron insisted that men and women sit together; volunteers led the services. People flocked to Billings when it became the hub of oil activity due to the Williston Basin oil boom. These newcomers were from big cities and were used to Reform Temples, and they led the movement to join the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Congregation Beth Aaron hired their first permanent rabbi. After several short term rabbis, Rabbi Samuel Horowitz became the congregation’s rabbi and remained for twenty-five years. Rabbi Horowitz and his wife Minna spent the rest of their lives in the city and are buried at Beth Aaron cemetery. Two permanent rabbis followed Rabbi Horowitz: Rabbi Kenneth Ehrlich and Rabbi Robert Ratner. After two decades of being served by student rabbis, CBA hired Rabbi Barbara Block in August of 2010. Rabbi Block was the spiritual leader of our community from 2010 to 2014.

HEADLINE NEWS: Anti-Semitic activities in the 1990s were shocking, but brought a positive community reaction. Widespread city outrage at the vandalism and threats resulted nationwide news and the Not in Our Town movement resulted in a documentary plus a number of news articles. It led to the establishment of the Human Rights Commission.

NOW: As St. Vincent Hospital expanded, they made offers to buy the Synagogue building. After years of negotiations, the sale was completed and land for the new building was included in the sale. The present Synagogue is the result of the sale plus an intensive fundraising campaign, which attracted donations from non-Jews as well as Jews of the community.