|Menorah-lighting in Norwood is a time of unity. Tammy Greenberg|
On the third night of Chanukah, Nanc Fellerman-Yahr came to illuminate the eight-foot-tall electric chanukiah at Norwood Borough Hall.
“Every night at 6, if you show up you get to turn the switch on,” she said .
Fellerman-Yahr, a speech and language pathologist and a member of Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine, is one of a core group of local Jews who bought and arranged for the display of the menorah 20 years ago along with a Christmas crÃ¨che.
“The answer to ‘Who knew 20 years ago there were Jews in Norwood?’ is ‘I did!'” she said.
It’s been nearly 22 years since she and her husband, Peter, and their sons Maxwell and Hudson arrived in the northern borough, which now is home to fewer than 6,000 people. “There were just a few Jewish families, many still here, when the question of the menorah came up before the mayor and council,” she said.
She was not at that meeting, but was told that the council was open to the idea of having a chanukiah on display – but only if residents bought it and only if there were a nativity scene alongside it.
This condition ruffled some feathers in the little Jewish community. Fellerman-Yahr got involved because she felt it was possible to accomplish the goal peacefully and quietly through a rather atypical fundraising campaign.
She asked one of the residents to price out the two items. He estimated that they had to raise $1,800 – remarkably, 100 times the Hebrew numerical equivalent of the word “chai,” life.
“I stated what we could donate, he matched it, and then I drove through Norwood in search of all the Jews I could find. It was the five or six Jewish families of Norwood and two very kind Christian neighbors that made the menorah and manger adorn our little town each year,” said Fellerman-Yahr, whose great-uncle, Meyer Pesin, once edited the Jewish Standard.
Until his retirement this year, Camillo Direse of the Norwood Department of Public Works always set up the holiday display and made sure to replace bulbs that had burned out or to fix wiring as necessary. One winter, unasked, he shoveled a path to the menorah after a blizzard had blanketed the borough with snow.
For many years, Fellerman-Yahr presided unofficially over the annual lighting. Publicity was a home-grown affair before the Jewish population of Norwood and neighboring Old Tappan began growing.
“Each family took responsibility for being there one night,” she said. “The families of Norwood would call each other for years, and then, later, flyers were sent home. The kids who were the youngest, or oldest, or closest to bar or bat mitzvah, were asked to light the first candle. It has always been a community event – we even had a Jewish mayor and judge in town at one time,” she said.
The ritual lighting is accompanied by singing, dancing, and the distribution of dreidels, Chanukah gelt, and stickers.
This year, about 200 people came out for the first night’s lighting, which was presided over by Rabbi Mendy Lewis of the Old Tappan Chabad. Mayor James Barsa lit the “helper” candle, the shamash, while Police Commissioner-Councilman Allen Rapaport lit the first candle.
“This is a joyous occasion for our community and the surrounding communities to join together,” Fellerman-Yahr said. She or one of her sons still drives by Borough Hall every night of Chanukah to make sure the chanukiah has stayed lit.
“More and more children and families are showing up,” she said. “Last year, as the word was passed, probably by Internet – certainly not by flyers – some great Jewish families stepped forward and provided donuts and cocoa.”
This year, Fellerman-Yahr brought along her seven-month-old granddaughter, Raisa, to the lighting. “I am so very happy to have lived here long enough to see this happen,” she said.