Monday, December 07, 2015

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The (Modern) Menorah Wars

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by Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, via the Nshei Chabad Newsletter Women’s Magazine, buy it here!


It started, like so many other ideas in Chabad, as a grassroots initiative. In Chanukah of 1974, Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, head Shliach in Philadelphia, lit a Chanukah menorah adjacent to the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It’s doubtful that the small group gathered on that wintry evening envisioned that public menorah lightings would spark a major debate that would engulf the American Jewish community for the next 15 years. 

In retrospect, the venue of the first lighting could not have been more appropriate. Independence Hall was where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Eleven years later, a Constitutional Convention was held at the same location. The First Amendment limited the power of the government to restrict religious freedom. For the first time in human history, Jews were given full religious rights. How Jews should express those rights in a democracy would be the focal point of the debate over the menorahs. 

The following year, 1975, saw the second public lighting. This time it took a much more public and dynamic tone. Rabbi Chaim Itche Drizin, the first Shliach in the San Francisco area, was looking for a way to spark Jewish pride. Zev Putterman, a local TV producer, suggested they create a large public menorah lighting. They thought the best location would be Union Square, the apex of the bustling downtown business district. They enlisted the help of music promoter Bill Graham, a Holocaust survivor. San Francisco was a Reform stronghold. The Orthodox presence was small, just a few old shuls with aging members. The local Jewish Federation dominated the community. To forestall any controversy, Drizin invited Federation leaders to the installation of the large menorah that dominated Union Square. The lighting was a great success. Union Square was packed with Jews from all segments of the community. 

But not all were so happy. Joseph Asher, rabbi of Temple Emanuel, the leading Reform congregation in a Reform-dominated city, lashed out against the Federation and young Rabbi Drizin. 

The Menorah Wars had begun. 

menorah Federation Leaders Cropped

(Picture - Leaders of the Jewish Federation of San Francisco join Rabbi Chaim Drizin at the installation of the Menorah in Union Square in December of 1975. The public celebration would spark the Menorah Wars.)

In the decades following World War II, the Jewish scene was controlled by liberal Jewish groups—the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations and the Reform and Conservative movements. Orthodoxy was small and politically timid. It would take years before groups like Chabad, the OU and Agudah had a presence in Washington. Liberal Jewish groups had fought hard to ensure that religion did not enter into the public sphere. Many of their leaders were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Fresh in their memory was how church and state cooperated to oppress European Jews. They believed that only a strong separation between church and state would prevent the emergence of state-sponsored anti-Semitism on the American scene. They had lauded the Supreme Court ruling in 1962 that banned prayer in public school. In most communities they even opposed Release Time, which permitted children to leave public school to attend religious studies one hour a week. They lobbied to ban government support of religious schools in the post-war decades. 

The debate over the menorah in the Bay Area ended in compromise. Stung by Asher’s harsh criticism, the Federation leadership suggested that Rabbi Drizin move the menorah to a local shopping center. They promised that if it failed to attract attention they would not oppose his return to Union Square. Rabbi Drizin was concerned and asked the Rebbe for direction. The Rebbe told him to seek counsel with someone in the area. At the time Rabbi Mendel Futerfas was visiting and advised Rabbi Drizin, “Before the bull charges it takes a step back, gathers its strength and then roars forward.” 

The next year the menorah was erected in Stonestown Shopping Center, with few attending. A year later, as per the agreement with local leaders, it returned to Union Square, where it stands until today, attracting a crowd of thousands every Chanukah.

San Francisco was the first skirmish in a battle that would rage in Jewish communities across America. Chabad Shluchim who were beginning to expand their network would put up a menorah, and local Jewish groups, in particular the American Jewish Congress (AJC), would oppose them. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), dominated by liberal Jews, would inevitably join the fray. Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council, a division of the Jewish Federation, would try to convince the Shluchim not to put up the menorahs. Jewish leaders were surprised at the determination and independence they encountered from young Chabad rabbis, who refused to back down. In some communities the tension simmered below the surface. In many cities, Jewish groups and the ACLU would go to court in an effort to prevent the menorahs from being erected. 

My own menorah battle in Santa Ana, California, took place in the late eighties. The American Jewish Congress had repeatedly sued Rabbi Shlomo Cunin about a menorah he had placed in a public park in upscale, predominantly Jewish Beverly Hills. It had become an annual ritual. Rabbi Cunin would apply for a permit for a menorah. The AJC would attempt to block him in the city council meetings. When that failed they would sue, and the media would gleefully exploit the Jew vs. Jew battle.

In 1986, on a plane on the way back from the Kinus Hashluchim, just a few weeks before Chanukah, Rabbi Cunin turned to a dozen Shluchim flying with him and said, “Boys, we can do this.” He asked each of us to put up a menorah in our local areas. 

I applied for a permit to place a menorah near an annual X-mas tree at the Orange County Civic Center in Santa Ana. The newly-placed menorah attracted the attention of the ACLU and the LA-based American Jewish Congress. It was the end-of-the-year holiday news doldrums. We became front page news; it was Jew vs. Jew in the local courthouse. The ACLU lawyer, who was Jewish, was backed up by another attorney from the American Jewish Congress. He argued in court that the X-mas tree could stay since it had no religious significance, but the menorah had to go. The judge granted them their motion. Not willing to capitulate, I lit a small menorah at the Civic Center with the TV cameras capturing my protest against a ruling that I said “curtailed my rights to freedom of religion.”

The liberal Jewish leadership even asked the Rebbe to curb the new Chabad activities! Joseph Glasser, executive vice president of the Reform Rabbinical Association, wrote to the Rebbe in 1978. In a strident tone, he requested that Rebbe “direct a cessation of the menorah lightings on public property.” He asserted that the Chanukah celebrations were “undesirable” and a “violation of the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state.” He went so far to warn that if these disputes continued it would end up in court. The Rebbe responded strongly, saying, “The United States is a nation whose money carries the motto ‘one nation under G-d,’ as does the Pledge of Allegiance.” He noted, “Congress opens with an invocation.” 




By the Grace of G-d

3rd of Sivan, 5738

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dr. ...

New York, N.Y.

Greeting and Blessing:

This is to confirm receipt of your letter and I regret the unavoidable delay in replying to it more promptly. In it you express your reservations about the kindling of the Chanukiot in public places on the grounds of (a) the principle of the separation of church and state (b) it being “counterproductive.”

Had I received your letter years ago, when the practice first started, I would have had a more difficult task defending it, for the simple reason that the expected positive results were then a matter of conjecture. But now, after the practice and the results have been observed for a number of years, my task is an easy one, since the general acclaim and beneficial results have far exceeded our expectations. The fact is that countless Jews in all parts of the country have been impressed and inspired by the spirit of Chanukah which had been brought to them—many for the first time. Indeed, the eternal and always timely message of Chanukah—the victory of the outnumbered forces of light over the overwhelming forces of darkness that attempted to make Jews forget G-d’s Torah and mitzvos (as we say in the prayer of “V’Al Hanissim”) — struck a responsive chord in the hearts of many Jews and strengthened their sense of identity with the Maccabees of all ages.

This year, too, some six months have elapsed since Chanukah, and reports have come in from various places where Chanukah lights were kindled publicly. The results have been most gratifying in terms of spreading the light of the Torah and mitzvos and reaching out to Jews who could not otherwise have been reached, either because some of them are unaffiliated with any synagogue or, though loosely affiliated, always thought that religious practices belong within the confines of a synagogue and do not [believe they have any connection with] the personal everyday life of the individual. It was precisely through kindling the Chanukiah in public places, during “ordinary” weekdays, with dignity and pride, that it was brought home to them that Judaism is practiced daily, and that no Jew should feel abashed about it.

With regard to the Constitutional question, I can most assuredly allay your apprehensions on this score. I am fully certain that none of all those who participated or witnessed the kindling of a Chanukiah in a public place (and in all cases permission was readily granted by the authorities) felt that his or her loyalty to the Constitution of the U.S.A. had been weakened or compromised thereby. Indeed, many expressed surprise that this practice has not been inaugurated years earlier, seeing that the U.S. Congress opens with a religious invocation by a representative of one of the major religions in this country; and, surely, the U.S. Congress, comprising each and every State of the Union, is the place where the Constitution of the U.S.A. should be most rigidly upheld. There is surely no need to belabor this point.

As for you stating that some Jews did object to the ceremony on Constitutional grounds, to my knowledge these were exceptional and isolated instances. Moreover, I dare say that (entre nous) the objectors, though ostensibly citing the Constitution, were motivated by other sentiments, a plausible assumption, since they are identified with organizations that thwart every effort to get State aid for Hebrew day schools and yeshivos to alleviate their burden .... Be it noted that the money that would have been received in such aid carried the motto “In G-d We Trust!” It is lamentable that as a result of this attitude thousands of Jewish children have been deprived of their right to a Jewish education. It is not surprising therefore to see such an appalling rate of intermarriage, nor is it surprising, however sad and deplorable, that the vast majority of intermarriages takes place among the ranks of young people who have been deprived of Jewish education, for one reason or another.

In view of your expressed concern for the preservation of Judaism in this country and for the protection of our children against proselytizing, etc., I am encouraged to take advantage of this unexpected exchange of correspondence between us to express my ardent hope that you will use your influence to put an end to the destructive fight against State aid to parochial schools—at any rate insofar as the secular department is concerned—so as to enable Jewish day schools and yeshivos to open their doors to the maximum number of students, starting with the next school year and thereafter. For only an adequate Jewish education can preserve our young generation and future generations from alienation, intermarriage, and complete loss, G-d forbid.

I hope and pray that everyone who has a voice and influence in Jewish community affairs and is concerned for the preservation of Jews and Judaism in this country, no less than for the preservation of the American way, will indeed act in the spirit of the basic principle of “this nation under G-d, and government of the people, by the people and for the people,” including also the Jewish people, and do everything possible for the good of every Jewish child, that he and she remain Jewish, marry a Jew and live Jewishly; and of course a good Jew is also a good American.

With prayerful wishes for an inspiring Yom Tov of mattan Torah and the traditional blessing to receive the Torah with joy and inwardness.

Sincerely yours,

[The Rebbe’s Signature]

From the archives of Rabbi Nissan Mindel. To learn more about The Nissan Mindel Publications and the books it offers, please visit


The Rebbe in his letter alluded to the fact that this battle over menorahs, and separation of church and state in general, was a smokescreen for a much deeper debate, about Jewish identity in American society. As he pointed out, “These same groups thwart every effort to get state aid for Hebrew day schools and yeshivos.” Chabad’s bold self-confident approach was upsetting a status quo that reflected deep insecurities. Jewish social scientist Charles Silberman describes in his classic A Certain People the attitudes of American Jews in the post-war era. He claims the prime posture was “sha, sha.” Jews were not to draw too much attention to themselves. As one rabbi said, the eleventh commandment of American Jewish life was “Thou shalt melt”;  observe tradition if you must, but don’t be too blatant about it. Some who had abandoned observance altogether wanted any expression of religion in the public square repressed. 

The Rebbe shattered this doctrine. As radio personality and author Dennis Prager says, “Chabad changed the outlook of Judaism that had been prevalent for two thousand years.” Undeniably, the Rebbe instilled in his chassidim a bold new self-confidence. In the fifties the Rebbe encouraged the bearded bachurim to walk from 770 to the yeshiva dorm, which was located at the time on Bedford Avenue. He wanted the Jews of Brooklyn to see the young bachurim, proud and secure in their identity. By lighting the menorahs in public, accompanied by major celebrations, Chabad was asserting that as American Jews we can be proud of our Jewish identity. We have nothing to hide in a country that ensures our rights to religious expression as stated in the Bill of Rights. But why express our religion in public davka on Chanukah? Because of the mitzvah of pirsumei nisa, of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah. Menorah is the only mitzvah we are commanded to publicize. And because we want to spread the mitzvah of menorah-lighting (and all mitzvos) to our brethren who don’t yet keep them. Their neshamos are parched and thirsting for emes, for Torah. If we don’t bring them a “drink,” who will?

Professor Arthur Hertzberg had been the leader of the American Jewish Congress during the intense battles over the Chanukah menorah. We met 17 years ago at the dedication of the Chabad Center in Fresno, California, where his grandson attended Hebrew School. Over the years he gained a deep appreciation of Chabad. In 2000 he told The New York Times, “Chabad has made an enormous change in the Jewish world,” one that left him, he said, “absolutely staggered with admiration.” 

menorah drizen cropped

Sitting in his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he summed up the Menorah Wars, in which he had played a crucial role in leading against Chabad.  “We believed we should be a Jew in our homes and a citizen on the street. The Rebbe believed that by being a Jew on the street we would be a Jew in our homes; he was right and we were wrong.”

The Menorah Wars were also the first real skirmish between the liberal Jewish establishment and the newly emerging Chabad. Around the country, Chabad was steadily expanding, although it would take years of hard work before it would grow into the force it is today. With its public menorahs, Chabad was standing up to the status quo and asserting its independence. The Jewish establishment didn’t object to a docile Orthodoxy, focused inward on Jewish scholarship and religious life. It was wary of the bold self-confidence that Shluchim now expressed. It was strongly opposed to Chabad’s agenda of transforming Jewish life to one rooted in Torah, spirituality and tradition. The establishment expected Chabad to follow its direction. It was simply unacceptable in their minds that a Chassidic group, still quite small, would chart its own course on the American sea.

Unfortunately, opposition to public menorah lightings was not limited to liberal Jewish groups. Some frum Jews also opposed public menorahs; they did not understand the value of reaching out to our brothers and sisters and bringing them the light of Chanukah. As recently as January of 2015, Eliezer Stein writes in a Hamodia op-ed, You see, it isn’t about what we can get or can’t get in court. It is about what is an important fight and what is not. An important fight is one that helps safeguard our religious practice — if it does, we cannot worry about whom it would antagonize. An unimportant fight is one that serves no such purpose; why, then, should we antagonize anyone?

What Stein does not comprehend is that it is far from “unimportant” to bring Yidden back to Yiddishkeit, one mitzvah at a time. It is far from “unimportant” to practice pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracles of Chanukah, and to do so as publicly as possible. Nor does he grasp that it was not the broader community that opposed the public menorah lightings, but rather Jews who did not want such a public display of Judaism. 

Stein feels that “an important fight is one that helps safeguard our religious practice.” The Rebbe saw, as other Jewish leaders did not, that safeguarding Yiddishkeit would not be accomplished by limiting our scope of activity to people who are already religious. Rather, we need to expand our focus outward, bring our brethren back to their roots and their inheritance, and in that way we strengthen Judaism for everyone.

The Menorah Wars came to an end in 1989, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Chabad’s favor. The ACLU had sued the city of Pittsburgh to block the menorah placed in City Hall by Chabad. The city defended the right of Chabad to have a menorah. Ultimately the city prevailed in the Supreme Court, which ruled that privately-supported religious symbols could be placed on public property. By the time the ruling came down, a new mayor, Sophie Masloff, who was Jewish, had been elected in Pittsburgh. She did not support the menorah as her non-Jewish predecessor had. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, she reversed Pittsburgh city policy and refused Chabad permission to put up the menorah. Attorney Nathan Lewin, who championed the menorah case, asked the Supreme Court to intervene and Justice William Brennan Jr. ruled in Chabad’s favor a second time. 

The real victory was not in the Supreme Court, but in the hearts and attitudes of Jews around the world. Today public menorahs are lit on Chanukah the world over. According to Rabbi Motti Seligson of, there were an estimated 15,000 in 2014. In Washington, DC, in 2014, Vice President Joe Biden participated in the ceremony at the National Menorah sponsored by American Friends of Lubavitch. The public lightings have shown Jews that in this country they can publicize the miracles of Chanukah as they are obligated to do. The public lightings symbolize the vitality of the Rebbe’s message. The Rebbe changed the face of American and world Jewry. He made Torah and Yiddishkeit central to the modern Jewish world. It was and is worth fighting for.


Picture - Chanukah Festival 2014 in Sarasota, FL, by Chabad of Sarasota & Manatee Counties. via Rebbetzin Sara Steinmetz.)

- Copyright & all rights to this article and pictures are retained by Nshei Chabad Newsletter -


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