Fights continue over public menorah displays
The Chanukah menorah stands as a symbol of Jewish freedom but is it a universal symbol that should be publicly displayed? That answer is not clear, as evidenced by the debates currently going on in local communities.
As Chabad opens new centers across the world, one staple of its holiday programming is a large menorah display during Chanukah. In Bergen County, menorahs are erected at town halls in Teaneck, Englewood, Tenafly, Hackensack, and in other public areas through the county. Similarly, for the past three years the Chabad Center of Passaic County in Wayne has put up a display at the borough building.
But in some towns, Chabad has met with less success. Lubavitch on the Palisades is fighting for the right to set up its menorah at Closter’s municipal building, as reported by The Jewish Standard two weeks ago, while Chabad of Fair Lawn is once again taking up its annual argument to be allowed to place a menorah at Borough Hall which, to date, the group has not succeeded in doing.
Anshei Lubavitch’s 10-foot menorah was on display on a private lawn across the street from Fair Lawn’s borough building two years ago. Rabbi Levi Neubort has been trying to get the menorah on display at Fair Lawn’s borough building for five years.
On Nov. 8, the Fair Lawn Borough Council held an open forum on the issue at which Rabbi Levi Neubort, director of the Anshei Lubavitch Outreach Center in Fair Lawn, argued his case, and residents voiced their opinions.
Neubort, who has been in Fair Lawn for five years, has brought his case before the council each year, circulating a petition that, so far this year, has more than 500 signatures. Two years ago, a Christian resident who lives across the street from the borough’s building allowed Neubort to place the group’s 10-foot menorah on his lawn. In front of it was a sign that read, "There will be liberty and justice for all when I am across the street."
Although Anshei Lubavitch sets up a menorah in front of its building on Plaza Road, as well as one in front of a different private business each year, Neubort said in an interview that having one at Borough Hall would further the goal of equal representation of the town’s diverse groups.
"Every child should be able to go by Borough Hall and see the cultural diversity here in Fair Lawn," he said. "I would not object to Frosty the Snowman in the display or any other secular [symbols] as well. Everybody should be proud to walk by the Borough Hall."
While the council says the menorah is a religious symbol but that the tree on its premises is a "holiday tree," Neubort said, the U.S. Supreme Court is clear on the designation of the menorah as a secular symbol.
In 1989, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on the public display of menorahs in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, stating that the cr?che and menorah are "purely passive symbols of religious holidays and their use is permissible." Citing previous cases allowing Congress and state legislatures to begin each day with a state-sponsored prayer offered by a government-employed chaplain, the court held that "a menorah or cr?che, displayed in the limited context of the holiday season, cannot be [ruled] invalid."
For Chabad, this ruling provides the basis for lawsuits against municipalities that will not permit the group to set up displays on municipal property. Nat Lewin of the Washington, D.C., law firm Lewin & Lewin who deals frequently with such constitutional issues sees about half a dozen cases each year involving Chabad menorahs. Often, he says, Jewish groups are among those opposed to their construction.
According to Neubort, menorahs are on display at the White House, Russia’s Kremlin, and the Great Wall of China. "They recognize the menorah is a universal symbol of freedom," he said. "Even in places where there is limited freedom, they allow people to have a symbol of hope."
Rabbi Jonathan Woll of Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn also spoke at last week’s forum, opposing the public display of a menorah in the town. Woll questioned the Supreme Court’s decision labeling the menorah a cultural symbol rather than a religious symbol.
"The Supreme Court had no jurisdiction [to decide] what a religious symbol is," he told the Standard. A menorah "is not a holy object, but something we use to sanctify a moment and commemorate our historic past and a miracle, which is a religious moment."
Writings in the Talmud further illustrate its religious significance, he added. "Although religious objects may be displayed," he said, "I felt that religious symbols ought not be displayed."
The issue has nothing to do with religious freedom, Woll said. "We can be as visible as we want, as active as we want. No government official is going to stop us. We have a remarkable amount of freedom, [but] I think there should be some reasonable limit to that," he said.
Woll added that he would have no problem if Chabad wanted to display the menorah at a shopping mall or on private property. It is the display of the icon on public property that troubles him.
"The Supreme Court really did something terrible," he said. "They walked into something they really shouldn’t have."
Council members could not be reached for comment by press time, and Mayor Martin Etler declined comment until the council makes its decision. There is no indication as to when a decision will be made.
The Standard reported two weeks ago that the borough of Closter had rejected a request from Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly to place a menorah in front of Closter’s municipal building this year. As of Tuesday, the organization had not received a response from Closter to its Oct. ‘4 letter requesting a public hearing and a second review of its request. If a response is not forthcoming by the end of the week, said Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky, Chabad will seek legal action. The Standard placed calls to Closter Mayor Fred Pitofsky and Borough President Sophie Heymann, but they were not returned by press time.
Lewin said he does not understand why municipalities would allow the menorah debate to reach the stage of litigation.
Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan of Chabad of Northwest Bergen County and Wyckoff Chief of Police John W. Ydo at last year’s lighting ceremony at Wyckoff’s town hall.
"It’s foolishness on the part of [a] local jurisdiction to try to prevent these things," he said from his Washington office. "They just end up paying our attorney’s fees," which, he added, cost the taxpayers more in the end than any road closures or set-up costs associated with the menorah.
Chabad of Northwest Bergen County in Franklin Lakes holds a community lighting each year in Wyckoff. The menorah was donated to the town in the ’80s by Friends of Lubavitch, and Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan said that it has helped relations between Chabad and the municipality.
"It’s their menorah," he said. "It’s really about attitude. All across America, and even in our county, towns have found it’s not been an issue as far as separation of church and state."
The Chabad Center of Passaic County in Wayne has displayed a menorah at the township’s municipal building for three years, said its director, Rabbi Michel Gurkov. It also erects menorahs on Routes ‘0, 80, and ‘3, and in front of the Chabad house. All of its menorahs are 9 feet tall. Chabad has been in Wayne for 15 years, but it was only three years ago that it began placing a menorah at the municipal building.
Unlike previous mayors, he said, the current mayor, Scott Rumana, was open to the idea, pitched jointly by Gurkov, Rabbi Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah, and Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah.
"The best way of [getting approval] is getting wider community support from the different Jewish denominations," Gurkov said. "When the municipality sees the Jewish community is united, maybe that will be a help."
Wayne Mayor Scott Rumana, Rabbi Michel Gurkov, and Freeholder Peter Eagler at the menorah lighting at the Ice Vault Arena in Wayne two years ago.
Mark, a Conservative rabbi, agreed. While both he and Wylen, from the Reform movement, are members of the Wayne Clergy Fellowship, they previously had little contact with their Chabad counterpart.
"It was a seminal moment," Mark said of their joining together three years ago. "It was the only thing that brought all three rabbis together."
What united them was a sense of "If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em," Mark said. "For the last 10 years, it’s been pretty universal in the Jewish community that since you can’t get rid of the Christmas displays in public places, at least you should have the Jewish display side by side," he added.
Two years ago, the rabbis wanted to hold a public lighting of the menorah in addition to the display. The council denied the request, stating that it would then constitute a religious ceremony. Gurkov turned to Nat Lewin to argue the case. When the township said it would take down the menorah until the case ran its course, Gurkov dropped the request for the lighting ceremony. "The bottom line was, it was up," he said. Instead of the lighting at the municipal, Chabad lit an ice menorah at the Ice Vault skating rink, a ceremony attended by Wayne’s mayor.
As a result of this incident, the Wayne Clergy Fellowship no longer sends representatives to the annual tree lighting at the municipal building.
The spirit of cooperation with municipalities continues to prevail in other towns served by Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, which places menorahs in Teaneck, Hackensack, Bergenfield, Paramus, and Englewood. Almost all the menorahs are on display at the municipal buildings, while in Hackensack, the structure sits in front of the courthouse, said Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch in Teaneck. Some of the menorahs are stored by the municipalities year ’round, while others are left in Chabad’s charge. Simon has never experienced anything but cooperation from the municipalities in his coverage area, he said.
As for Neubort in Fair Lawn, he sees last week’s forum as a sign that the mayor and council may be coming around.
"That Christian homeowner who was kind enough to loan us his home spoke volumes," Neubort said. "We are one nation under God and need to be unified. We may have different religions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all be represented on one lawn."