For some, the symbols of Hanukkah this year bring added concern

For several years, the menorah stood next to the Christmas tree inside the county courthouse in Missoula, Mont. This year, the local rabbi asked officials to also set up a Hanukkah display on the courthouse lawn to show support for the community’s small Jewish population.

The request sparked a passionate public debate — one that has played out in several other places around the country, as the war between Israel and Hamas has fueled tensions and raised concerns among some Jews about the visible display of their faith at a time of discord and rising anti-Semitism.

“At this specific historical moment” he said Josh Slotnick, a county commissioner in Missoula who is Jewish, a large outdoor menorah could “be mistaken for a political symbol rather than a religious symbol.”

Across the country, most public celebrations of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that begins at sundown Thursday, appear to be going on without interruption, according to the Jewish Federations of North America, which works with Jewish event organizers across the United States.

In Detroit, “we have more RSVPs this year than we’ve had in previous years,” said Benji Rosenzweig, producer of the annual menorah lighting ceremony. Police agencies in the city said they plan to keep a close watch potential threats.

The Security Community Network, a non-profit organization that advises Jewish institutions, answered questions about the security of Hanukkah celebrations with video briefing on Tuesday who encouraged people to carry on, but also to prepare for possible demonstrations and to stay in touch with local law enforcement agencies.

“We take security very seriously,” said Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federations, which organized the security network after the 9/11 attacks and has seen it expand rapidly since the 2018 killing of 11 Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh. “But the goal of security is to allow us to continue to actively participate in Jewish life.”

Few Hanukkah-related events have drawn additional attention or controversy this year, including in Williamsburg, Va., where community festival organizers chose not to light the menorah, drawing condemnation from the state’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“Singling out the Jewish community by canceling this Hanukkah celebration is absurd and anti-Semitic,” he announced on social networks.

The festival organizer did not respond to requests for comment but he said of other news outlets that the festival has always welcomed Jewish participants and has never hosted a menorah lighting before.

Rabbi Mendy Heber of Chabad Williamsburg, who requested the ceremony, described the decision as “a punch in the gut.” But he noted that the burning will still take place at William & Mary, the university in Williamsburg.

“We’re going to make this Hanukkah bigger and brighter than ever,” he said. “That’s how we react to darkness.”

In some homes, however, security concerns and disagreements over the war have led Jews to question whether they feel comfortable with public displays of their faith.

Adam Kulbersh was initially reluctant when his six-year-old son asked if they were putting up decorations. “Hanukkah feels different this year,” said Mr. Culbersh, an actor from Los Angeles. “The huge rise in anti-Semitism has frightened many of us.”

But after a non-Jewish friend volunteered to display the menorah in solidarity, Mr. Kulbersh said, his fears began to dissipate. A menorah now lights the window of his apartment, and Mr. Kulbersh has launched an online campaign asking other non-Jews to follow his friend’s example.

He called it labor The Menorah Project and he said that people in about two dozen states had volunteered.

The candelabra that are lit on Hanukkah are technically called hanukki. They have eight candles and one more, the shamash, which is used to light the others.

“The menorah to me personally represents that kindness, kindness and warmth always wins in the end,” said Rabbi Chezky Vogel of the Chabad Jewish Center of Missoula, who requested the outdoor display at the county courthouse.

“There is a lot of emotional isolation associated with being Jewish at a time like this,” Rabbi Vogel said, disagreeing with Mr. Slotnick, the county commissioner who was concerned that some might interpret the display as political. Menorah, Rabbi Vogel said, does not mean support for Israel.

Another leader of the small Jewish community, however, counseled prudence. Laurie Franklin, rabbi emeritus of Har Shalom in Missoula, said the commissioners “were being asked to make a decision very quickly about doing something on public property. It has an awful lot of nuances.”

Finally, officials decided to keep things as they are, with a menorah inside the rotunda of the courthouse, but not on the lawn. Rabbi Vogel said he hopes to change their minds in the future.

Rabbi Franklin said he will continue to enjoy the menorah outside his synagogue, as well as the smaller one at home.

“Jews are not a uniform community,” she said. “We don’t necessarily all have the same political views. We don’t necessarily have the same view of the conflict in Israel and Gaza. But lighting the menorah is a beautiful act of unification.”

Campbell Robertson and Emily Schmall contributed to the reporting. Susan Beachy contributed to the research.

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