Menorah Lights Triumph Yet Again

by Rebecca Rosenthal - SHREWSBURY, MA

December 14, 2005

In Shrewsbury, MA, a Chanukah miracle took place when the town Board of Selectmen voted to reverse their original vote to deny the Chabad Jewish Center permission to light the menorah on the town common. Chabad representative Rabbi Michoel Green will kindle the menorah there on December 25th at 5:30 p.m. and the menorah will be lit every night of the eight-day Chanukah holiday.

A phone call from Chabad’s attorney, Rob Meltzer of Framingham, MA, swayed the town manager to reconsider the issue. Meltzer informed Town Manager Dan Morgado that Chabad would be lighting the menorah and referred him to past court cases that were in Chabad’s favor. Apparently, a Google search turned up cases like Allegheny v. ACLU where the Supreme Court ruled to allow menorahs on public property. At a Finance Workshop, a quorum of selectmen voted to rescind the refusal.

“We weren’t expecting such a sudden reversal,” said Rabbi Green. “It is a very positive outcome.” A menorah in the town common should stir Shrewsbury’s Jewish population’s awareness of their growing numbers, and “people will come out of the woodwork,” he said.

Shrewsbury resident Elizabeth Allen intends to bring her daughter, Rebecca, 8, who attends Chabad Jewish Center’s Hebrew School, to the lighting. “Having the menorah will help people come together and enjoy the holidays together instead of thinking they are the only Jews in town,” said Allen, who voiced her relief that the issue did not reach the courts. “Whenever anything gets to litigation, you get people who go against it. People don’t like conflict.”

Avoiding a suit was important to Rabbi Green. Over the summer, he began working to secure the town’s permission for the menorah lighting. His phone calls to meet informally with the selectmen and a letter asking the board for guidance with the wording of his request, all aimed at avoiding a contentious reception, went nowhere, he said. Rabbi Green wanted to catapult over the quagmire that Chabad had to wade through a few years back to get permission for their menorah in West Borough, MA. Now, Chabad’s menorah lighting in West Borouugh is such an established local event that the town’s selectmen and other local politicians participate.

It was this community spirit that encouraged Marjorie Lewis to support Chabad Jewish Center’s Shrewsbury effort. Born and bred in Massachusetts, where public Jewish displays were once rare, Lewis enjoyed seeing Rabbi Green include town dignitaries in the West Borough lighting. “It is such a nice experience about the peace and good will we can all feel at this time of year,” said Lewis.

Initially, the Shrewsbury denied the menorah’s placement on the town common citing safety issues, questioning Chabad Jewish Center’s affiliation with Shrewsbury, and pondering whether the common actually belonged to the town or the Congregational Church next door. The call from Meltzer helped reframe the request. "If they're exercising their First Amendment rights, they can do whatever they want to do," Morgado told the Boston Globe. "The board's position is they don't endorse, approve, or disapprove" any activity on the common.

All the ruckus over the menorah was worth the effort because of its potential impact. During the back and forth, Rabbi Green drew strength from a letter written in 1982 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, to the Jewish Community Council in Teaneck, NJ. A public menorah brings the “realization that there is no reason really in this free country to hide one’s Jewishness, as if it were contrary or inimical to American life and culture,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote. “On the contrary, it is fully in keeping with the American national slogan ‘e pluribus unum’ and the fact that American culture has been enriched by the thriving ethnic cultures which contributed, very much, each in its own way, to American life both materially and spiritually.”

Shrewsbury is but one location of many that permission for Chanukah menorah lighting on public property was first denied then permitted, this year. The township attorney of Winsdor, NJ, flipped his nay to a yay based on “recent federal court rulings,” and Chabad representative Rabbi Sholom Leverton will be hosting a lighting ceremony at the Ron Rogers Arboretum, a public park. After gaining hard-won permission for one night of lighting in front of town hall last year, Chabad representative in Wellesley-Weston, MA, Rabbi Moshe Bleich will be lighting the menorah at town hall every night of the holidays.

With court findings as a bulwark and community support as a buttress, there will be more Chanukah light in more places than ever this year.

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