2016-06-30
"On December 2, 1993, 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 menorah-for all to see. Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah 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. We urge all citizens to share in this message by displaying this menorah on a door or a window from now until Christmas. Let all the world know that the national hatred of a few cannot destroy what all of us in Billings, and in America, have worked together so long to build."
--Editorial, Billings Gazette, Dec. 1993

In a world filled with fear, how can young people learn courage? In a world filled with violence, how can young people learn peaceful solutions? In a world filled with religious and racial division, how can young people learn unity and cooperation?

Children learn in many ways: sometimes by example, sometimes by the power of a compelling story, and sometimes by the realization that human beings can be capable of extraordinary acts of courage and goodness.

All three elements came together in Billings, Montana, during the holiday season of 1993.

No one knew why it started, but 12 years ago the town of Billings began to be infiltrated by skinheads and members of racist groups. The tiny minority of Jews, African Americans, and mixed-race families who lived there were immediately targeted for acts of hate. Though the vast majority of residents were white and Christian, they chose to take a principled stand based upon their conviction that an act of hate toward one citizen was an act of hate toward all. Many individuals and groups rose up to respond. For example, the Billings Painters Union offered to repaint for free any houses or businesses that had been spray painted with racial or religious epithets. And members of churches with predominantly white congregations came to the African Methodist Episcopal Church to pray with black neighbors when menacing skinheads began to show up at church services.

But then, as the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah approached, Jews became a special target. Windows in Jewish homes displaying Hanukkah menorahs began to be smashed. Jewish families were advised to remove their menorahs until the perpetrators were caught, but they resisted. And so menorahs continued to be displayed and windows continued to be smashed. Ultimately, in a show of solidarity and support, tens of thousands of Billings residents displayed paper menorahs in their windows.

What gives people the courage to fight against hatred and the wisdom to understand just how important that fight is? What causes some communities to come together when faced with acts of bigotry and violence, while other communities split apart? In Billings, it was a combination of factors including:

  • A family, victimized by bigots, who spoke out eloquently and refused to be intimidated.
  • A police chief who understood the seriousness of hate crimes and was determined that they would not be tolerated under any circumstances.
  • A lay church leader who remembered a story she had heard as a child, about how Christians in Denmark led had stood against the Nazis to help Jews in 1943, and used that event to help inspire her community.
  • Clergy of all faiths who were committed to genuinely practicing what they preached.
  • A newspaper that investigated and published the truth about local hate crimes and then used its editorial pages to urge the community to take a stand on principle.
  • Town residents who were willing to learn from history and be guided by their own conscience and religious faith.
  • Along with many other people, I was deeply moved by these events 12 years ago. As a practicing psychotherapist specializing in loss and life transitions, I'd witnessed the power of courage and goodness firsthand. I'd seen how those traits could enable individuals to surmount life's greatest challenges. But here was an entire community acting together on the highest principle of loving your neighbor as yourself. How did this happen, and what could we all learn from the events in Billings?

    My desire--indeed, my compulsion--to know more drew me to interview the people in Billings and resulted in my children's book, "The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate," published in 1994. Since that time, in schools, churches and synagogues, I've spoken to thousands of children about what happened in Billings and have seen how they've been affected and inspired by this story.

    Now more than ever, it's crucial that children learn true stories of courage and goodness. That is the best, perhaps the only real antidote that we can offer them in dangerous, unpredictable times.

    I clearly remember discussions I had with youngsters in Billings in early 1994. Even in the early elementary school grades, they were all aware of what had happened in their community. "You just have to show people that you care," one fourth grader explained to me. "If you don't stand up to bullies, they'll just keep pushing you around," a fifth-grader stated flatly. "We were scared," said another child, "but my dad, he said it was the right thing to do."

    The lessons of Billings can be taught in many ways. Sometimes heroism consists of simply doing the right thing and setting an example by one's everyday actions. When children see their parents, and other adults, helping others, standing up for a belief and actively working to improve their communities, it makes an impact - perhaps more than people realize.

    In fact, research studies focusing on people who have shown extraordinary courage, such as the "Righteous Christians" who risked their lives to rescue victims of the Nazis, and civil rights leaders who fought segregation in the South, concluded that many of these individuals were greatly influenced by the quiet, everyday acts of kindness and goodness they observed on the part of their parents, teachers, and neighbors.

    Research emphasizes that it is essential for the adults in children's lives to explicitly and strongly condemn acts of hatred, violence and bullying. When parents and other adults fail to do this, children can misinterpret their silence as agreeing with or condoning these acts, says Dr. Ervin Staub, a prominent researcher at the University of Massachusetts, who has conducted several studies in this area. "They may assume," he says, "that their parents do not think such acts are morally wrong. Even more troubling, they may come to the conclusion that this is simply the way people operate and that evil, and a lack of resistance to evil, is the norm in this world."

    Hatred, intolerance and compliance with evil need not be the norm-that is the enduring legacy of Billings. "We must constantly remind ourselves and our children that what we become depends on what we believe," the Rev. Robert Massie, formerly of Harvard Divinity School, points out in my book, "Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World." "If we believe the problems in this world can't be solved, the chances are they won't be. If we believe that we can make a difference, then that belief begins to come true, too. The amazing thing is that it doesn't take very many people to believe in change, for changes to be made.

    "Think what our country would be like if families sat down and talked together about how our immediate communities could be better, and what we each could do to make that happen. If every parent asked their children, `What do you think we should be doing as a family to make our neighborhood better?' they would get ideas back. The more people actually talk about what kind of community they want to live in, and the more they visualize it and see what it might be like, the more likely it is to come true."

    On Dec. 2, 2005, 12 years to the day when a cinderblock came crashing through young Isaac Schnitzer's bedroom window because it displayed a menorah, I returned to Billings for a very special event-the theatrical premiere of my children's play, "Paper Candles: How Courage and Goodness Triumphed in an American Town," which is based on "The Christmas Menorahs." For me, the play is a natural outgrowth of my book, giving young people the opportunity--through the dramatic process--to actually be a part of the acts of courage and goodness that occurred in Billings. This is important, because research indicates that children who are exposed to, and participate in such acts, are much more likely to want to emulate them in their own lives.

    I wrote the play to be performed by children in upper elementary and middle school, and it has been performed and discussed in classrooms across the country. Afterwards, kids always share their feelings about the events and the main characters. They often go on to talk about what they could do to deal with bullies and bigots in their own lives, and in their own community. As one child in Montclair, N.J., said to me, "The important thing is not to give in...the important thing is not to turn away."

    In Billings that night after the play, a resident told me, "It's still a little hard to grasp that we were starting a movement. We just wanted to do the right thing."

    A fifth-grader in the cast had known very little about the 1993 events until she did the play. "It was nice to find out about everything that happened. I started asking my parents questions, and I didn't even know that they put up a menorah. I wish they had told me that. I think it would have given me courage.now with the play, I'm going to try to be a better person."

    Perhaps we all will, as the result of the actions of one American town. As Rev. Massie says, "If we believe that we can make a difference, then that belief begins to come true."

    For information about the play "Paper Candles," please click here.