Montana’s Jewish community is so small that for half a century the Treasure State had no functioning synagogue, until Congregation Beth Shalom opened in Bozeman in 2001.
Beth Shalom is now home to 120 families, but temple president Jake Werner knows only one person in the community who was born and raised in Montana: Bozeman native Cora Neumann, who is now running to represent the one of two states. congressional constituencies.
“Montana has always been my home,” Neumann said. Jewish insider in a recent Zoom interview. When the nonprofit leader and public health expert moved for college in the 1990s, she spent more than two decades living away from home. But Montana remained her North Star, she added: “It’s like the story of so many Montanans, where you grew up here, you leave for school and work, and you’re all the time on the way back.”
Neumann, a Democrat, makes her deep ties to the state an integral part of her campaign, which has centered on the state’s affordability crisis, sparked by wealthy remote workers who moved there since the start of the pandemic.
“In Congress, I will go after wealthy foreigners who drive up costs,” she said in a voiceover of a campaign ad showing a private jet and multimillion-dollar mansions. What that really means, she told JI, is “to make sure that Montananese have good jobs and good wages, that they can afford the cost of living [and] ensure that our small businesses can succeed.
Neumann, who briefly ran in Montana’s 2020 Democratic Senate primary until former Gov. Steve Bullock entered the race, faces long odds of making it to Washington. She runs in the newly created 1st District, which covers the western part of the state; this is the first time the state has had more than one statewide district in three decades. And while it includes some Democratic strongholds such as the college towns of Bozeman and Missoula, the nonpartisan Bake the political report listed him as “probably Republican”.
“The odds are slightly against her if you just look at the Democratic-Republican kind of stuff, but the quality of the candidate matters,” said Ed Stafman, rabbi emeritus at Beth Shalom and a Montana state representative. “Montana has a fierce streak of independence.”
Neumann, who is 47, has raised more money than her Democratic competitor, lawyer and former Olympian Monica Tranel. But his main Republican challenger, Ryan Zinke, the former Interior Secretary who resigned amid an ethics investigation, has raised significant funds and won the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. And like Neumann, Zinke, born in Bozeman, is not a convict.
Yet the crux of Neumann’s speech is that she understands the residents’ experience and their challenges – rising costs, difficulty in finding well-paying work, inability to access quality medical care at a reasonable distance. With a doctorate in international development and a career focused on public health, Neumann says her health care background is a crucial asset at a time when the state is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the coronavirus, the question of how to help people access good care is a personal one.
“The reason I went to public health was because my dad was a lumberjack and died of injuries in a sawmill accident when I was a baby,” Neumann recalled. His mother was widowed at 21. “The community here in Montana, in Bozeman, raised us. It was a wonderful place to grow up. But what we went through, obviously, was very traumatic. And if we had been closer to good care, he probably would have survived. So I just had a very early life lesson on the importance of public health and health care for rural communities and tribal communities.
Her father was Jewish, and when he died, Neumann’s mother had pledged to raise her and her brother in the faith. But a sense of Jewish community was hard to come by in Bozeman at the time. The siblings spent each summer with their grandparents “who fled the Holocaust and ended up in Colorado,” Neumann said. His grandfather, Alfred Neumann, practiced as a lawyer in Vienna, but when he left Europe as a refugee, he trained in social work in New York. He then served as executive director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Colorado for nearly three decades.
Neumann’s time with his grandparents sparked an interest in travel and global affairs. They spoke German to each other, and as a teenager Neumann took part in an exchange program in Germany and later studied at Oxford, where she obtained her doctorate.
“I was brought up with stories of geopolitics [importance] – of war, really understanding the power and the importance of leadership,” she explained. “That’s probably where that interest comes from, just the stories I heard growing up and the feeling that I had the importance of having really good leaders who are committed to democracy.”
This fundamental belief in democracy colors his approach to Israel. “I think it’s really important that we continue to strengthen and promote the democratic ideals that we share between the United States and Israel,” Neumann told JI. “I support the very strong and ongoing relationship and the bipartisan relationship that the United States has with Israel. She called on the United States to support Israel and the Palestinian Authority “in their work toward a two-state solution,” and also expressed support for the Abraham Accords and “growing and improved relations in the region, which is great for everyone.”
Neumann pledged to support the Biden administration’s quest to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “and ensure that Iran does not achieve the capability to produce nuclear weapons.”
Early in his career, Neumann worked briefly in the Jewish professional world before earning his graduate degrees, first as a journalist at the New Mexico Jewish Link then as a communications professional with the American Jewish Committee.
“I felt really connected to the Jewish side of my family, and I was really interested in learning and working with an organization that works globally, and then learning more about Israel and international relations in general” , she said. Neumann has visited Israel twice with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation’s REALITY trips to the country.
“She came [to AJC] with a deep interest in global affairs,” AJC media relations director Kenneth Bandler told JI. Neumann was Bandler’s first recruit after her debut with the organization in the late 1990s. Bandler recalls that she helped organize a relief concert after a massive earthquake hit Turkey in 1999 The event, organized with the Turkish and Israeli consulates in New York, featured bands from Turkey and Israel. “She had a very positive outlook,” he said.
While working on her PhD, Neumann gained field experience at the intersection of global health and international development. She spent time researching the Thailand-Burma border, and later served as a senior adviser to the State Department’s Global Women’s Business Initiative, a program launched by the Secretary of State for time, Hillary Clinton. Neumann also developed the Global First Ladies Alliance, which worked with wives of world leaders to help them develop and implement their own priorities. “No one ever asked them what their opinion was, of course. They were never treated with respect, to be honest, fully,” said Neumann, who helped create the program that convened the first ladies to discuss how to make an impact.
Her interest in topics like women’s empowerment and equitable health care was not politics but a sense of justice. “I was the kid on the playground who got mad at bullies,” she said. Later, during her graduation, she worked with “rural communities, tribal communities, displaced populations and witnessed enormous needs,” Neumann said.
Living in Washington, DC, it was years before Neumann and her husband, who grew up in Hungary and Germany, could both find opportunities in Montana in their chosen fields. “My whole generation, the majority of us had to leave for work or school,” she said. “Being able to stay in Montana for life is often a privilege.”
The couple moved to Bozeman in 2015, when Neumann started a nonprofit that formed coalitions with Indigenous communities, conservationists, hunters and ranchers to preserve public lands. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she put her knowledge of public health to good use. She had worked on Ebola before, and she knew a pandemic would be most devastating to “our rural, remote, and tribal communities,” Neumann noted. “It’s my skill. So I just wanted to put myself to the best possible use of serving our communities during this time.
The nonprofit she started, We Are Montana, worked with local leaders to bring aid and personal protective equipment to communities in need across the state. “People may have to drive five or six hours to get care. So we were also airlifting supplies to certain communities and just making sure, trying to keep our ears to the ground and cater to the most needy populations in the state,” Neumann said.
Her discussion of public health during the election campaign did not focus on COVID-19, which she said “will become endemic.” But she called for a stronger national take on the toll of the virus and a stronger response to the mental health crisis that has emerged in its wake. “We have just, as a country and a world, gone through a mass traumatic event,” she noted. One outcome, she argued, is that “hate is on the rise in all its forms”, and called for a multifaceted approach.
“Between political division and mass trauma and loss, we cannot wait. We need to make sure that people get the care they need on the one hand, and that we protect those who might be targets,” she noted.
Voters will not see this political division or Neumann partisanship. His television commercials leave out his political party, opting instead for an image of a folksy, no-nonsense Montanan in a fleece-lined vest and prominent belt buckle.
“I hate political ads, but I love my granddaughter,” her “Noonie” says in one ad, where the two women chat over a cup of coffee. “Give them hell, baby.”