There’s something prominently displayed at the Mississippi Governor’s mansion: a nativity scene. Seeing it recently took me by surprise.
When I asked my friends about this, they laughed and reminded me that I was not in New York anymore. My adopted home of Jackson, Mississippi is smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, and while Jews all across the country feel the December dilemma, it is especially strong in the South.
Hanukkah, historically considered a minor holiday, was embraced more broadly by Jews wanting to fit in with fellow Americans celebrating the holiday season. Menorahs became standard in homes, businesses, and eventually, the public square, particularly in towns with large Jewish populations. It led me to wonder how these public manifestations of Jewish identity came to be, and what that means in a predominately Christian place like Jackson.
Most people don’t realize that the menorah’s public face in America began in 1974. That’s when Lubativch leader Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson began pressing his local emissaries to erect menorahs in town squares where holiday displays were already present. Liberal Jewish organizations criticized the decision, but Schneerson defended the campaign. Over the next few years, menorahs began springing up in cities and towns across America. The campaign was so successful that by 1979, the Carter administration arranged for a giant menorah to be built on the White House lawn. By 1982, President Ronald Reagan designated the White House menorah as the National Menorah.
Many Jews, loyal to the concept of a separation of church and state, took issue with menorahs being placed alongside Christian symbols in the public square because all religious symbols on government property represented an endorsement of religion and therefore a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. For them, these public displays of Jewish religious symbols threatened the separation of church and state, a foundational principle that served to protect the religious freedom of the Jewish community. As such, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) fought against them which while the National Jewish Commission On Law And Public Affairs (COLPA), the litigation arm of Agudath Israel, and other Orthodox religious Jewish non-governmental organizations fought to keep them in the public square.
The battle came to a head in 1989 in County of Alleghany v. ACLU. This case looked at the constitutionality of two holiday displays in downtown Pittsburgh. One was a nativity scene, standing in a very prominent position in the courthouse. The other display was an 18-foot tall Hanukkah menorah donated by a group of Lubavitcher Hasidim accompanied by a 45-foot tall Christmas tree, at the base of which was a sign stating “Salute to Liberty.”
In a splintered decision that included nine separate written opinions, the court determined that the display of a menorah next to a Christmas tree in a public square could be appropriate, holding that the menorah and the Christmas tree were secular symbols, thus making the display compatible with the First Amendment, while the display of the nativity scene inside the courthouse was deemed unconstitutional, because it was a religious symbol. However, for many Jews, the Menorah holds immense religious significance It’s a complicated ruling.
The allowance of menorahs in the public square does potentially open the door for other religious symbols on public grounds. Religious symbols like nativity scenes, particularly in the Bible Belt. By pushing for menorahs displayed in the public square, ultra-Orthodox Jews also paved the way for public displays of other religious groups’ items.
What holiday symbols do you think should be allowed in the public square during the month of December? Is it better to have all, or nothing? How does it make us feel to have some-but-not-all in many public squares?
Don’t feel badly if you are torn; the courts have been as well. Here’s a list of other court cases dealing with public menorah displays. Happy Hanukkah!
 See Dianne Ashton, Hanukkah in America: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2013).
About this time last year, I remember walking around the streets of Jerusalem, counting the menorahs I could see in windowsills and doorways. I was excited and inspired—I had never seen such a prevalent, and beautiful, public display of Jewish ritual before.
On Hanukkah, we are told to light the menorah and place it at the entrance to our homes, a place easily visible to those passing by in the street. Over the years, the tradition has changed and many place the menorah in the window, facing the street. The rabbis say that one should choose the window most visible from the street, whether that window is in a bedroom or a family room. If many people pass by the entrance to an apartment (say, in the stairwell), the proper place for the menorah is just outside the entrance to the apartment. All this is to say that the menorah should be positioned in the place where it will be seen by most people, in order to publicize the holiday.
This year, I’m going to place the menorah in my front windowsill of my apartment in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m going to do so without a second thought. I have the privilege of placing a menorah in my windowsill without the fear of persecution in response to this public display of observance. What’s more, I do so with great pride and ownership of the ritual.
This year, next to my menorah, I’m going to place a banner that signifies the meaning of Hanukkah to me, a holiday that’s meant to bring light into our world. As a Jew devoted to social justice, to me that light represents equal rights for all. That light represents my belief that all people, regardless of religion or race or gender, should be able to walk down the street without fear of persecution or violence. Everyone should feel privileged enough to place the equivalent of their menorah in the windowsill.
Over the past weeks, as crowds have gathered across the country to demand an end to police brutality and racial violence, I’ve often wondered what I can do as a Jew and an ally to support this work. So this year, I’m adding a simple object to my windowsill—a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter.” There are similar Hanukkah campaigns and initiatives being encouraged by many national Jewish organizations, such as Bend The Arc and Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Hanukkah means “dedication.” This year, I am re-dedicating my Hanukkah. I hope you will join me.
I read with interest and appreciation Ben Greenberg’s recent post “Synagogues: Begin with Why.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about the same phrase, but substituting the “Why” with “How.”
I’m currently serving on the rabbinic search committee for my small Jewish congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. This process has compelled us to take a critical look at ourselves. The membership and leadership of the congregation has been asking a lot of questions. We are reflecting about what our congregation is, why our congregation exists, and how everything we do gets accomplished. What are the qualities we think are most important for our rabbi, as spiritual leader and perhaps executive director, to lead the one synagogue in our Bible Belt town? And what will make a rabbi want to bring his or her life into our community?
We are the only congregation in Jackson. Being the only game in town means there is no “shul shopping” to find the perfect fit for one’s family. The congregation must be the one-size-fits-all answer to everyone who lives here. This leads me back to the “how”. How can one congregation, with a very small staff, serve the needs of a diverse membership of 215 family units?
The answer does not begin or end with finding the right rabbinic candidate. The “how” has to involve everyone – all of our congregants who make this temple their home congregation.
All of our members must contribute, and I’m not just talking about money (although that’s vital to keeping the lights on). All must contribute time. All must invest in the feeling of community. Whether welcoming those who come to worship, teaching a class, planning a program, visiting the sick, answering phones, helping with office work, landscaping, preparing a holiday meal, organizing meaningful activities with the larger community… the list goes on and on. No one will do this for us, and no one should. We get out of synagogue life what we put into it. Without us, there is no “how.”
And then I think about some of the challenges of the smallest synagogues—those with 50 members or fewer. There are congregations where every member has a key to the building—because they are all responsible; members take turns ensuring there is wine and grape juice for Kiddush, and even purchasing the toilet tissue for the restroom. Many of these communities can no longer afford to have a full time rabbi, so their “how” is that everyone must contribute resources, expertise and time to make their synagogue a spiritual home, a place where everyone is welcome.
That is the challenge for us in smaller communities, but it is also our strength. It is what will make the right rabbinic candidate feel at home here, because they will be welcomed and meaningfully put to work—as are all our active members.
Synagogues: Begin with “why,” yes, absolutely. But we will only continue and be sustained, year after year, by all of us asking (and answering) “how.”