Can public menorah lighting ceremonies pull in unaffiliated Jews?

Jewish Journal/December 15, 2006
By Jane Ulman

On the third night of Chanukah, at 6 p.m., a parade of 40 cars topped with electric menorahs, some four feet high with flickering lights, will wind its way about six miles under police escort from southwest Houston to The Galleria shopping center, where several thousand people will gather for a celebration and the lighting of a giant seven-foot menorah carved out of ice.

"Jews are thrilled to see a menorah. It brings them Jewish pride," said Rabbi Moishe Traxler, Chabad of Houston's director of outreach, who co-designed the $1,000 deluxe, metallic-painted car menorahs, based on a 12th century design by the Rambam. Traxler oversees the lighting of the ice menorah's oversize candles.

Public lightings of Chanukah menorahs in the United States have grown exponentially since 1974, when Rabbi Abraham Shemtov of Philadelphia's Chabad-Lubavitch Center lit a small menorah at the foot of the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall.

The following December, a 22-foot-high mahogany menorah, known as the "Mama Menorah," was lit in San Francisco's Union Square, its idea conceived by Northern California Chabad founder Rabbi Chaim Drizin, among others, and its design and construction funded by rock music promoter Bill Graham.

To many Jews, these public celebrations -- many with oversize and unconventional menorahs carved of ice or built of LEGOs -- create a fierce sense of Jewish pride. And given that Chanukah is the ultimate anti-assimilationist holiday, many Jews and non-Jews alike believe the exhibits establish the menorah as a universal symbol of religious freedom.

To others, however, the public menorah displays raise controversial legal issues regarding separation of church and state, as well as issues regarding the religious significance of the menorah and the true interpretation of the Talmudic commandment to publicize the holiday miracle.

Chabad now sponsors thousands of public menorah lightings worldwide (, according to Chabad-Lubavitch spokesperson Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, but not all lightings fall under their auspices.

At The Promenade in Westlake Village, on the fourth night of Chanukah, about 25 third-graders, from Conservative synagogue Temple Beth Haverim in nearby Agoura Hills, dressed as dreidels, candles and cruses of oil, will sing "I am a Latke" and other Chanukah songs preceding the lighting of a nine-foot menorah.

Since the mall opened 10 years ago, Beth Haverim has sponsored this "Chanukah pageant," which, according to Rabbi Gershon Weissman, carries out the Talmudic commandment pirsumei nisa, which in Aramaic means "to publicize the miracle," as well as makes the Jewish community feel supported.

"People come up to me afterward and say, 'Thank you, rabbi, thank you for putting this up in the mall,'" Weissman said.

That was exactly the purpose in the 1980s when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, began actively campaigning for his Chabad emissaries stationed worldwide to sponsor public menorah lightings.

As Schneerson wrote in 1982, the public display "has been an inspiration to many, many Jews and evoked in them a spirit of identity with their Jewish people .... To many others, it has brought a sense of pride in their Yiddishkeit."

Controversy -- and multiple lawsuits -- erupted, however, most initiated by the Jewish community itself, which believed that public displays violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which separates the institutions of church and state. But in 1989 the Supreme Court, ruling on a 18-foot menorah that Chabad-Lubavitch had erected in a government building in Pittsburgh, decided in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU that the publicly displayed menorah did not endorse a particular religion but rather, placed next to a Christmas tree, was a secular symbol that was "part of the same winter holiday season."

The Union of Reform Judaism, however, continues to maintain a policy of separation of church and state, opposing all government-sponsored, government-funded religious displays on public property, according to rabbi and attorney Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.

The Talmud "says, 'Put the chanukiah in your own window.' It doesn't say to put it in someone else's window," she said. Additionally, Feldman said, placing a chanukiah next to a Christmas tree gives the erroneous message that the two are somehow related.

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in a resolution on separation of church and state in the United States passed in 1997 and still in effect, maintains the same policy, according to Richard Lederman, United Synagogue director of social action and public policy.

Over time, however, many non-Orthodox clergy have tempered their positions.

Years ago, Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said he would have given "an absolute and definitive no" to the concept of public menorah displays. Since then, though he remains offended by calling the menorah a secular symbol, he said he has witnessed how beautiful many of these ceremonies can be.

"There's value in public lightings to remind all of us that [Chanukah] is a religious holiday -- and is not about shopping," he said.

Many synagogues, as well as Jewish federations, hold menorah lightings on their own property. For the past 40 years, Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Ariz., has lit a 12-foot oil menorah that sits permanently on the synagogue's front lawn, facing a main thoroughfare.

"The basic mitzvah of the holiday is publicizing the miracle," said Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon. He added that by holding the lighting on private property overlooking a busy street, the synagogue is fulfilling that commandment without in any way violating principles of church and state.

Cohon believes that the public display has had a positive effect on the community, even "rekindling the Jewish spark" in a few people who have later become temple members.

For many rabbis, that's precisely the point, no matter the size of the community.

On Dec. 17, at Universal Studios' City Walk, up to 10,000 people, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are expected to attend the fifth annual Chanukah celebration and lighting of an approximately 18-foot menorah sponsored by Chabad of the Valley, representing 19 Chabad centers in the Los Angeles area.

"This is the Cadillac of candlelightings," said Chabad of the Valley's associate director Rabbi Mordechai Einbinder, noting that myriad people, both religious and nonreligious Jews, have been touched by the event.

In Davenport, Iowa, where the Jewish population is estimated to be about 800 people in the metropolitan four-city area, up to 125 people are expected at Chabad of the Quad Cities' second annual "Chanukah on Ice" celebration, featuring the lighting of a six-foot-high ice menorah at a local sports arena.

"We light candles in a public place to show people and remind people of the miracle that happened then," said Chabad's Rabbi Shneur Cadaner, adding that one or two new people coming to such an event is significant in a small community.

For many, that public reminder can have a positive effect.

Houston resident Jay Hamburger, who has been on a self-admitted search for spirituality most of his life, has attended most of Chabad of Houston's public lightings since his daughter was born 11 years ago.

"There's something different about a public lighting. The menorah is bigger, physically and symbolically," he said. "It illumines my path back to my heritage."

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