Friday, November 25, 2005

Chabad fights for religious symbols on public property

by Shayndi Raice
Wednesday November 23 2005

Shrewsbury and Wellesley are two towns questioning the display of menorahs

Local Chabad rabbis are meeting resistance from town officials over displaying menorahs and holding candlelighting ceremonies on public property this Chanukah season.

Shrewsbury town selectmen originally refused a request from Rabbi Michoel Green to place a menorah in the town common. However, after a Nov. 21 meeting, the town decided to retract their refusal, although they have not given Chabad permission to display the menorah.
In Wellesley, Rabbi Moshe Bleich successfully negotiated with town officials to allow a menorah to be displayed on the town lawn for the entire holiday season under the agreement that he would rescind his request to hold a public ceremony.
The problems both Chabad rabbis encountered are not new to the Greater Boston area or Chabad. While the U.S. Supreme Court case of County of Allegheny v. ACLU ruled in 1989 that a menorah was a secular symbol when displayed among other holiday symbols, and can be displayed on public property, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has often experienced opposition from local community members in attempts to hold candlelighting ceremonies or display a menorah on public property.
“Our experience is that [the menorah] reminds people that it’s Chanukah and it makes them excited and proud to be Jewish and because of that it’s definitely worthwhile,” Green said. “ There are people who object and even a number of Jews based on church-state issues, but we feel that the benefit that it brings far outweighs any of the negative aspects.”
Green, spiritual leader of Chabad-Lubavitch of Westborough, successfully displayed a menorah on the town’s public property last Chanukah. According to Green, because half of his congregants live in Shrewsbury he put in a request in August that a menorah be placed there as well.
Prior to making his request, Green spoke with a town selectman, Phillip Hammond, who assured him that the request would be approved. But at a Nov. 7 town meeting a decision passed to refuse Green’s request because the Chabad is not located in Shrewsbury.
Hammond did not return calls placed by the Advocate.
Daniel Morgado, Shrewsbury town manager, said: “We had a request from the Chabad Center in Westborough to put a menorah on the town common in Shrewsbury and determined that it was not a Shrewsbury organization. We allow use of our common for public displays for Shrewsbury organizations.”
After the Nov. 21 meeting, Morgado refused to say whether Chabad now had permission to display the menorah. He said “the decision to refuse Chabad was retracted.”
While Green is certain he ultimately will be allowed to display the menorah because the law is on his side, it is unclear whether he will be able to overcome the obstacles the town has placed before him in time for this year’s holiday season.
Green said that while he could pursue this legally, he hopes to be able to work it out with the town. “ The selectmen are good people and they’re trying to do their job,” he said. “It’s just a question of change. Change is tough, and putting anything up is something they take very seriously, especially a menorah.”
While Green has a lengthy process in front of him to overcome challenges in Shrewsbury, Rabbi Bleich has negotiated in his favor to display a menorah and candle-lighting ceremony.
Last year Bleich received heavy criticism from both the American Jewish Committee and Jewish residents of Wellesley. Both the AJC and local Jews cited the separation of church and state in their discomfort with the display. Bleich threatened to sue the town if they proceeded to refuse his request. With the law on his side, the town gave in. However, they only allowed him to display the menorah on the last day of Chanukah. This year, Bleich wanted to display the menorah during the entire holiday season. The town agreed to allow him the extra time if Bleich would not request a public candle-lighting ceremony, which he did in 2004.
Bleich said that he was pleased with the negotiations, particularly because his synagogue just purchased a new property on Worcester Street near Route 9 West and he plans on holding the public ceremony there.
Rabbi Joel Sisenwine, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, said: “Recognizing that Chanukah is a religious holiday, I would prefer that the community celebrate it in the synagogue as a religious celebration.” However, he added, “I recognize the recent Supreme Court decisions and the complex roles that these symbols play on public grounds.”
Sisenwine’s opinion however, is not a reflection of his entire synagogue, he said. “Like American society, we continue to struggle with the appropriate separation between church and state and so our community is as diverse as America.”
Both Bleich and Green feel that displaying a menorah is not only their legal right, but also an important contributor to Jewish pride. “Lots of Jewish kids here go to public schools and the Jewish kids are out of the loop,” said Green.
Bleich agreed: “It gives Jewish people a sense of pride. You walk by Town Hall and you see Christianity everywhere – not in a negative way. I have no problems with Christians celebrating Christmas but at the same time I want Jews to have a positive feeling as well.”

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