Chanukah lights to shine in Ridgewood
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Chanukah lights to shine in Ridgewood

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From left, Esther Zuckerman, Michele Opper, Rabbi David Fine, and Rabbi Elyse Frishman put the menorah together inside Temple Israel to make sure that it worked. It will be disassembled and then reassembled outside.

This year, for the first time, a Chanukah menorah will be prominently displayed in the Village of Ridgewood, at the northwest end of Memorial Park at Van Neste Square on East Ridgewood Avenue.

According to Rabbi David J. Fine, religious leader of the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, “while the question of a menorah on public land was a matter of some controversy in our community, the upshot is that the village is simply allowing the display, not putting up the display itself, and that we have been able to work with the wider Jewish community in Ridgewood in establishing what will hopefully be a tradition in bringing together our community in a newly imagined village.”

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The menorah stands tall inside Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. Johanna Resnick Rosen/Candid Eye

Rabbi Fine said that during the summer of 2012, Ridgewood Mayor Paul Aronsohn was approached by a group of Ridgewood residents who sought to have the menorah erected.

Those residents – Esther Zuckerman, Michele Opper, Lara Cohen, and Nicole Cohen – had been discussing the issue among themselves since the previous year, gathering the information they would need to put forward the proposal.

“I went to a menorah lighting in 2011 in Allendale and I thought, why don’t we have this in Ridgewood?” Ms. Opper said. “It was so wonderful, bringing out all the Jewish families as well as other people. I knew Esther and I spoke with her about it. Then I ran into Nicole, and she was also interested. She brought in Lara.”

The group continued to meet informally, ultimately deciding to approach the mayor.

“He put us on the path,” Ms. Opper said.

“For us, it’s always been about our families and the way Ridgewood is now,” Ms. Zuckerman said. “It’s a diverse community. We want to be able to show our children and our families that they are represented and included in this community.”

Pointing out that it is a mitzvah to display a lighted menorah publicly, she said, “The four of us came together and said, ‘How can we do this? Who do we need to reach out to? What information do we need beforehand to make this happen?’ We did a lot of logical information gathering – due diligence. We did a lot of talking and listening to different community members.”

After collecting information from surrounding communities – taking note of where and how their menorahs are displayed – as well as learning more about the history of Ridgewood and how it has celebrated other events, the women approached the mayor, who, in turn, called in Rabbi Fine.

Mayor Aronsohn “referred it to me in both my role as rabbi of the synagogue and chairman of the interfaith clergy association,” said Rabbi Fine, who – together with the mayor – met with the four women. He subsequently discussed the issue with the clergy council, “and a majority wanted to be supportive.”

But while there was no opposition to the menorah itself, “there was a feeling that the religious life of the village should be in the hands of the religious community of the town, not the village government.”

Going back to his congregation, Rabbi Fine took a survey of his membership, gauging their reaction to the menorah.

“We found that there was a difference of opinion in terms of those who said we should absolutely have it and it was a shame that we didn’t have one already, and those who were not supportive of it either because they were uncomfortable with blurring the lines between church and state or because they didn’t see why there should be a need for Chanukah to compete with Christmas,” Rabbi Fine said. “It’s not our high holiday. There shouldn’t be a sense of competition.”

Others, he said, thought that religious observances, in general, should be done privately in people’s homes.

“There was a real variety of views, to the point that the synagogue couldn’t advocate strongly for or against,” Rabbi Fine said.

Nevertheless, he continued to do research “and understood that the law that has evolved from Supreme Court decisions over the past 15 years makes it difficult to say no. It’s constitutionally protected. I came to understand the position of the Supreme Court, that it’s not a church-state question but a question of freedom of expression. If an individual community wishes to express its religion, to celebrate it publicly, and is asking for an opportunity to do that, it would be improper for the village to say no.”

Fine said that before he began his research he had been worried about the church-state issue, although the absence of a menorah did not make him feel excluded.

“We all approach our role as a minority differently,” he said. “I learned more about the constitutional issue, and now I also believe that this is in the interest of the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Fine stressed that while the menorah and the Christmas tree will be displayed in the same general area, “they are not in the same location.

“That is important. We didn’t want it next to the Christmas tree. There’s no sense of competition.”

He noted also that neither the menorah nor the tree are funded by tax dollars.

“We didn’t want a ‘Village of Ridgewood menorah,'” he said. Rather, “it will be the menorah of the Jewish community of Ridgewood, put in a public place with the permission of the town.”

Rabbi Fine said that he has been working closely with the rabbis of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, and Temple Beth Or in Washington Township. While the menorah technically will be the property of Temple Israel, each night the lighting ceremonies will be conducted by a rabbi from one of these congregations.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to gather together with leaders of the Jewish community and for all the Jewish residents of Ridgewood to share their opinions,” he said. “We’ve seen the grassroots of the Jewish community in Ridgewood come together.”

Rabbi Fine stressed that the menorah will be “entirely funded by Ridgewood residents – no government funding, no outside funding. It’s going to be completely run by the rabbis, working together with the Jewish community of Ridgewood.”

Ms. Opper pointed out, however, that since many Ridgewood residents attend synagogues outside the community, they are inviting friends, families, and fellow congregants to contribute to the project as well.

The menorah committee is well satisfied with the result of its labors.

Noting that they encountered virtually no resistance, Ms. Zuckerman said, “We worked with as many resources as we possibly could – public, religious, and otherwise. We started with Mayor Aronsohn and Rabbi Fine. Then, as the process went along, we expanded our outreach to ‘talking and listening tours’ with different members of the private and public communities to let them know what we were thinking.”

Had their request been refused by the council, she said, “we would do what we do – one step at a time. We would have kept on expanding our circle of supporters.

“This is a grassroots effort. We would have kept on talking to keep it in the public eye.”

“We’re pretty thrilled,” she added, noting that the proposal received the unanimous approval of the five-member city council. “This is a big deal for both the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community.”

“A more inclusive, more embracing community is good for everyone,” Mayor Aronsohn said. “This is a very exciting moment in the life of our village – one that underscores Ridgewood’s profound sense of community and profound commitment to inclusiveness.”

He added that he applauds the residents behind the initiative, who “advocated for a menorah with the right mix of energy, sensitivity, and passion. And they received invaluable support from the leaders of Ridgewood’s extraordinary interfaith community, led by our own Rabbi David Fine, as well as from Rabbi Elyse Frishman, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick, and Rabbi Kenneth Emert, each of whom represents members of Ridgewood’s Jewish community and each of whom played an important role in this effort.”

On Wednesday, November 27, at 5:30 p.m., the first Chanukah candle will be lit in Van Neste Square. Mayor Aronsohn will be there, and other council members have been invited as well.

“It will be a big celebration,” Ms. Zuckerman said. “It’s free and open to all.”

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