Orange County Register, December 11, 2017
On Tuesday night, Dec. 12, Jewish communities in Southern California will light a menorah to celebrate the first night of the eight-day Hanukkah celebration.
Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, commemorates the miraculous victory of the minority Maccabee Jews over their Greek-Syrian oppressors, reinforcing their right to religious freedom, more than 2,000 years ago.
This millennia-old tale has not only stood the test of time, but has grown in relevance to Jews in America during a year when anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 67 percent and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va., during a summer rally chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hanukkah, which was a relatively minor holiday and didn’t even get a mention in the Hebrew Bible, became not just the most publicly celebrated Jewish holiday in the United States, but also one of the brightest expressions of Jewish history and pride in this country.
There’s no question that Christmas had an influence on the way Hanukkah is celebrated stateside, said Rabbi Richard Steinberg, who leads Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine and is chairman of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
The Festival of Lights isn’t celebrated with similar zeal even in Israel, he said.
“But it’s so significant for the American Jewish community because it symbolizes the celebration of religious freedom for which the Maccabees fought and won,” Steinberg said. “It symbolizes the miracle of light during dark times.”
Community leaders say they haven’t seen a dimming of enthusiasm over public Hanukkah celebrations this year.
“I believe that if we were to refrain from celebrating or have a less-enthusiastic celebration, we would be handing a victory to bigots, racists and anti-Semites,” said Josh Aaronson, senior rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, where about 800 families attend.
“I’ve been encouraging people to get out there and show some pride. It’s true for other communities such as the Muslim community, African-American community, Christians or any others who have been victimized by hate crimes, too. We should revel in our traditions and not be deterred by hate.”
Some Jewish leaders said the fear over anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi uprisings has been greatly exaggerated.
“What impact does 60 to 70 wackos demonstrating in one town have on our country? None whatsoever,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. “This is a golden age for Jews in America.”
The display of menorahs in public spaces is a matter of pride for Jewish people and reflects the transformation of American Judaism from a private observance to a public celebration, he said.
In addition to taking pride in Jewish heritage, the public celebration of Hanukkah is reflective of the religious tenet “to radiate light outward,” said Rabbi Menachem Posner, who handles questions for the “Ask the Rabbi” section at Chabad.org.
“Sharing light and bringing light to those outside is baked into the theme of this holiday,” he said.
In keeping with this theme, many Jewish homes continue the tradition of lighting a menorah in the living room, dining area or putting it in a window or doorway, Posner said.
The first known public celebration of Hanukkah in the U.S. was in 1974 when Rabbi Abraham Shemtov lit a 4-foot menorah that was crudely fashioned from wood in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which houses the Liberty Bell. It was a subdued ceremony with just a handful of Jewish religious students looking on.
The next major development was in 1979, when Shemtov became instrumental in arranging for a giant menorah to be built on the White House lawn during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
There were several challenges to public menorah lighting ceremonies, primarily from the American Civil Liberties Union, which claimed doing so was a violation of the separation of church and state as mandated by the First Amendment.
Among those who fought for public Hanukkah celebrations was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who as mayor of Burlington, Vt., first allowed the display of an 8-foot-tall menorah outside city hall in 1983. The ceremony became an annual event until the ACLU protested in 1987 and sued in 1988. Sanders did not back down and defended the menorah in the courts through 1989, his last year as mayor.
A number of court victories in the 1990s paved the way for menorahs and lighting ceremonies nationwide.
“We are now one nation sharing something beautiful with so many nations all around us,” Posner said.
Menorahs have brightened cities even in the darkest of times.
Officials in Paris went ahead with plans when the city was in a state of emergency, to light a menorah in front of the Eiffel Tower just weeks after the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks that left 130 dead and 413 injured.
That same year, a group of Syrian refugee children lit a giant menorah at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin along with Jewish children.
News of hate crimes and incidents targeting Jews around the country has only made the community more united and stronger, said Ayana Morse, executive director of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center.
“We’ve seen a sense of coming together and making our identity and presence known,” she said. “People in general are finding comfort in communities.”