I am proud to live in a country that protects all faiths and cultures from discrimination, and guarantees that all will be treated equally. Born and raised in Europe, I experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, and I am especially grateful to be living in the United States, where I can live as a Jew proudly.
When I applied for a permit to place a menorah on town land some two months ago, I was initially rejected and agreed to a compromise for this year. But shortly thereafter some expressed the opinion that the menorah has no place at all on public land in Durham.
Just two weeks ago, thousands of public menorahs were on display for all eight days of Hanukkah in hundreds of cities and towns in all 50 U.S. states, including at landmarks such as the Ellipse in front of the White House, Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and San Francisco’s Union Square. Indeed, decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States and of Federal Courts of Appeals establish that a municipality is constitutionally obliged to permit a private religious display on public land wherever it allows secular displays. Public menorahs have been a welcome part of the patchwork of American life and culture since they first appeared nearly 50 years ago.
“... It has been long recognized in the USA that the erection of a public Hanukkah menorah is a positive thing because of its universal message of freedom of the human spirit, freedom from tyranny and oppression, and of the ultimate victory of good over evil, just as ‘a little light dispels a lot of darkness.’” wrote the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the most influential rabbi in modern history. “These fundamental human aspirations and principles, as visibly symbolized by [the] kindling of the Chanukah lights, are surely shared by the vast majority of Americans.”
The menorah represents the principles of equality and religious freedom upon which our country was founded. It’s ironic that this very symbol of freedom of religion and the right and liberty of all citizens to worship God freely, openly, and with pride should be banned in the name of that same freedom.
The founding fathers, who were themselves religious, wanted to protect religion with the Establishment Clause. Suppressing a religious symbol is certainly un-American, and accomplishes exactly what the Founding Fathers sought to prevent.
It may be easy to find reasons why not to be inclusive. But I think we, as a community, have the responsibility to find a solution that will afford everyone their constitutional rights. I, for one, am committed to working with the town administration to create an inclusive path forward.
Durham officials need to consider whether we are finding solutions to be inclusive with the menorah, or finding reasons to exclude it. Hundreds of cities, some with many more complex challenges than we at Memorial Park, find a way to have a menorah for all eight days of Hanukkah annually without incident. I’m sure, if we want, we can be like every other willing municipality.
The fact that the town allows for some to publicly express their culture is wonderful, and I hope that continues. As for the concern that was expressed about a lack of space in the park, remember the menorah is but 6-feet wide. If we can find the room in our hearts, I am certain we can find the room in our parks as well. Should vandalism/anti-Semitism present a concern, a stronger, better-protected menorah can be constructed. We would be happy to do that.
I am hopeful that Durham will find a way for the public menorah to be on permanent display throughout the Hanukkah festival. It’s the right thing to do morally, legally, and practically.
As we continue this important discussion, let us recall this country’s motto, E pluribus unum, Out of many, one. The United States of America has been enriched by the various thriving cultures it has welcomed on to its shores since the founding of this country, with each contributing, in its own way, to American life. Let us be a part of this uniquely American tradition.
— Rabbi Berel Slavaticki co-directs UNH & Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center, a local Jewish organization. For more information, visit www.ChabadUNH.com.