The sponsorship – by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center – of a giant menorah on the Daniel Hoan Memorial Bridge was an historic milestone.
The lighting of public menorahs has inspired untold numbers, reigniting their Jewish flames. From the White House lawn to the Eiffel Tower to the Kremlin Palace, to locales throughout Wisconsin – I applaud the Federation for adding our city’s most recognized bridge to the list.
The Jewish world has come a long way in its support of public menorah displays. When Chabad initiated public menorahs, there was vehement opposition. Like many of the Chabad Lubavitch programs and initiatives that were not understood nor welcomed by the wider Jewish community, with time they were adopted and became part of the Jewish fabric.
So is the case with the Chanukah public menorah displays, with much of the opposition that came from the establishment of the Jewish community. There were decades of litigation against public menorah displays, reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which came out in support of the public displays.
I remember the fight over the placement of the menorah in the rotunda of the state capitol. How heartwarming it was to see Gov. Tony Evers hosting a Chanukah event on behalf of the State of Wisconsin.
So, what was the problem? Some argued it was an issue of separation of church and state. But clearly a deeper issue lingered under the surface. As one prominent community leader wrote to me, “We are making spectacles of ourselves and that Judaism should solely be reserved for within one’s heart.” Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, who headed the American Jewish Congress, strongly opposed the menorahs. In a moment of self-reflection toward the end of his life, he noted, “We thought you should be a Jew at home and a citizen on the street. The Rebbe thought that by being a Jew on the street you would be a better Jew in your home; he was right, and we were wrong.”
In a letter, the Rebbe himself articulated this to a Jewish leader who wrote to him complaining about the menorahs: “Had I received your letter years ago, when this practice started, I would have had a more difficult task of defending it, for the simple reason that the expected positive results were then a matter of conjecture. But now… the fact is that countless Jews in all parts of the country have been impressed and inspired by the spirit of Chanukah which has been brought to them, to many for the first time.”
From day one that the Rebbe assumed the mantle of Chabad leadership, he encouraged everyone to use their sphere of influence to inspire others and to share the pride and the beauty of Torah and practice of Judaism with others.
All Jews, of every stripe, should be encouraged to not only light a menorah in one’s own home, but to attend and support public menorah lightings, and to encourage others to do so as well. I have also received tremendous responses from individuals, young and old, whose spirit was lifted upon seeing the menorahs displayed in the public sphere.
One of the most important messages of Chanukah is the demonstration of Jewish pride. Proud to be Jewish not only at home, but wherever we are. Indeed, the Chanukah lights are required to be displayed in a place for everyone to see, which are expressly meant to illuminate the “outside,” symbolically alluding to the duty to share the holiday light with others who may not be experiencing it.
Public menorah lightings give us, and everyone, resolve that amidst darkness, we exist not just for ourselves but to provide light to the world.
Thank you, Milwaukee Jewish Federation and Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, for this wonderful initiative, which I trust was successful in driving the message of Jewish pride.
Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin is executive director of Lubavitch of Wisconsin. The opinions in this article and in other opinion pieces in the Chronicle are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Chronicle.