Hanukkah | S.F. lighting was one of first public displays in U.S.

It was a frigid Saturday night during Hanukkah of 1974 when Rabbi Abraham Shemtov had the wild idea of lighting a menorah in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, which houses the Liberty Bell, the icon of American freedom.

The menorah was crude and made of wood; Shemtov had fashioned it with the help of some visiting yeshivah students. Almost no one was there that night to witness the actual lighting, but that simple 4-foot menorah was the seed from which thousands of public menorahs have sprouted in public and private spaces around the world.

Fast-forward 40 years, and these menorahs — many of which are set up and celebrated by Chabad-Lubavitch centers as part of Hanukkah festivities — have become a staple of the holiday. Jews around the world gather every year to celebrate with the lighting of an oversized menorah, often nine feet tall or more and towering above the celebrants.

First public menorah lighting in Union Square,1975. photo/courtesy www.billgrahammenorah.org

But back in 1974, it was just beginning.

In 1975, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Drizin lit a 22-foot-tall mahogany menorah in San Francisco’s Union Square. Music promoter Bill Graham — a child survivor of the Holocaust — paid for its construction  and the Union Square lighting became a popular annual tradition that continues to this day (see story, 3).

In 1979, Shemtov collaborated with Stuart Eizenstat, President Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser and executive director of the White House domestic policy staff, to arrange for a jumbo menorah to be built on the White House lawn. Despite the fact that Carter was awash in the opening weeks of the Iranian hostage crisis, he pointedly walked from the White House to the menorah, where he lit the shamash — the helper candle from which the others are kindled — and shared greetings with the assembled crowd.

Yet even as Jews flocked to public lightings, the idea met significant resistance, particularly from some sectors of the Jewish establishment and from the ACLU, which claimed it was a violation of the separation of church and state as mandated by the First Amendment.

Ironically, it was the same First Amendment that attorney Nathan Lewin cited time and again as he successfully litigated dozens of cases in a decades-long effort to secure the right for Jewish people to place a menorah and observe Hanukkah on public property.

On July 3, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city of Pittsburgh could erect an oversized menorah lent to them by Chabad alongside its yearly Christmas tree.

Lewin argued the case. The Pittsburgh decision only meant, however, that a government body had the right to display a menorah on public property right next to other holiday displays, such as a Christmas tree.

It would take until 1993 to establish that individuals and groups have the right to erect such displays, when Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that “the City may not deny Rabbi Flamer a permit to erect a fixed free-standing menorah in a City park during the Chanukah holiday because of the menorah’s religious message.”

Many other significant victories were won in cities such as Cincinnati, Atlanta and Grand Rapids, Michigan, each one establishing an important precedent that would pave the way for future menorahs.

Today, with the legal issues largely moot, menorahs continue to crop up across America. It is estimated that as many as 15,000 Chabad-Lubavitch menorahs were publically lit last Hanukkah.

Last year, the tallest menorah in Europe, more than 30 feet high, was lit on the first night of Hanukkah at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, once the center of the Nazi regime and capital of Communist East Germany.

Thousands of people attended the public ceremony, as did local dignitaries.

“Bringing light to places of darkness is the message of Hanukkah,” said Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Berlin. “There is no greater contrast then lighting a menorah here — in the place that was once the epitome of darkness — and now flooding it with the essence of light.”

This article originally appeared at ejewishphilanthropy.org, and is reprinted with permission.