Moving menorahs for Chanukah

This year on Chanukah, before Chabad of Santa Monica can light its two 12-foot-tall, propane-fueled menorahs in Palisades Park and on the Third Street Promenade, Rabbi Isaac Levitansky has to procure two pickup trucks to cart the menorahs to and from their spots. 

“Normally we set them up and we left them there,” Levitansky, Chabad’s spiritual leader, said of the menorahs, which he said will take “four or five” people to lift. But as a result of a ban passed by Santa Monica City Council last June outlawing any private unattended displays on city-owned property, all menorahs being lit in public spaces will have to be removed each night. 

“If you have to deal with legal issues, you deal with them,” Levitansky said in an interview on Dec. 3. “They’ve banned us from having nonattended displays in the park, but if they’re attended, you can have them there. That’s our plan.”

The ban is the result of a years-long controversy, focused not on menorahs, but on the display of a set of 14 life-size dioramas telling the Nativity story. The Nativity scenes, which are sponsored by a consortium of local churches, had been displayed along Palisades Park in Santa Monica since 1953. In 2011, in a lottery conducted by the city, atheist activists won 18 of the 21 available spaces for display in the park, leaving one space for Chabad’s menorah and two for the Nativity scenes. 

The atheists used their installations to promote atheism and criticize religion. Anxious to prevent Palisades Park from becoming a space for competing religious and anti-religious displays, the Santa Monica City Council voted last June to remove the exemption that had allowed the wintertime displays in the park. 

The group behind the Nativity displays filed a lawsuit against the city in hopes of stopping the change from taking effect, citing the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins dismissed that suit in November.

William J. Becker Jr., the attorney representing the churches behind the Nativity scenes, said his client would appeal the dismissal. 

“The government has engaged in an unconstitutional act,” Becker said. “Of course, the only people who care are the Nativity scene people, because the Chabad people have other locations. They should, though, because it’s their First Amendment right that’s being violated, too.” 

Levitansky said he had “about 60” other menorahs sited throughout the city on private property. The Nativity scenes will also be displayed on private property this year, Becker said.

It’s not just Chabad’s menorahs that are being affected by the ban. For the past five years, Downtown Santa Monica Inc., the public-private partnership that manages the business assessment district that includes the Third Street Promenade and the streets that surround it, has had a menorah lighting of its own on the promenade. 

As a result of the ban, that menorah, an electric candelabra with branches that rise more than 10 feet into the air, will have to be moved on dollies onto the promenade each time it is to be lit. After the ceremony, it will be carted away. 

Part of the tradition at the promenade has been to invite local congregations to lead the lighting of the menorah for a night. Mishkon Tephilo, a Conservative synagogue at the border of Santa Monica and Venice, had been responsible for one night in each of the last two years. This year, they’re going as guests of Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav, another Conservative synagogue, which is responsible for lighting on the fourth night of Chanukah, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m.

Santa Monica nativity ban hits menorahs, too

The Santa Monica City Council has banned all future nativity, anti-nativity and Chanukah displays at the oceanfront Palisades Park. The 5-0 vote on June 12 ends a nearly 60-year winter tradition.

The religious displays have been the subject of controversy in recent years, with friction rising between religious groups and atheists. Historically, these displays have mostly been Christian, with Chanukah displays appearing in more recent years. Atheist community members made a formal complaint in December 2010 objecting to religious symbols being displayed on public property.

The result was that in June 2011, the seasonal display places were put up for a lottery. Of the 21 plots given out, 18 were won by atheists, two by Christian groups and one by Rabbi Isaac Levitansky of Santa Monica’s Chabad. The atheist displays that went up later that year expressed anti-religious sentiments, causing further complaints from a Christian group, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.

The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce started the nativity tradition in 1953 to attract more visitors to the area. This year visitors will have to do without.

Levitansky, who organized the only Jewish display in Palisades Park, says he’s disappointed with the decision.

“I feel bad that the city council and the city attorney could not find a medium to have the displays in public,” he said.

But Levitansky says the ban won’t deter him from promoting his religion.

“We will be putting around 60 public menorahs around Simcha Monica,” he said, “and if one goes down, two will go up.”

Rabbi Jeff Marx of the Reform Santa Monica synagogue Sha’arei Am says religious displays should stay on religious property.

“Religious displays make sense to be on religious property,” he said. “I would put it in our parking lot, as I wouldn’t expect the city to host our symbols.”

Marx also says menorahs have deep religious meaning, and are not meant to be cultural.

“There’s nothing traditional about a having 17-foot menorah in public. It’s unnecessary; these symbols belong in our homes,” he said.

Even as the city council was creating the ban, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition that includes 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association, submitted a petition with 1,721 names, requesting that the ban be rescinded.

Karen Ginsberg, director of Santa Monica’s Community Recreation Division, which had allocated spaces for the displays, says the ban on unattended private displays will apply to all of Santa Monica’s parks, and will allow the city to continue to be religiously impartial.

“Under the first amendment, we cannot favor one religion over another, or one religious display over another,” she said. “This ban will help normalize the rules for all of our parks.”

World Briefs

Bush Blasts Attacks

President Bush lashed out at those responsible for a rash of anti-Semitic attacks that have taken place across Europe. “We reject the ancient evil of anti-Semitism,” Bush said during a speech Tuesday, referring specifically to “those who burn synagogues in France.” In the speech to business and civic leaders in California’s Silicon Valley, he added, “America values and welcomes peaceful people of all faiths

Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others. Every faith is practiced and protected here because we are one country.”

Farrakhan Ban Upheld

Britain’s Court of Appeal upheld the government’s right to bar Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan from the country. The court said Tuesday the ban was based on reasonable fears that Farrakhan’s “notorious opinions” were a threat to public order. The court also said that Farrakhan would not be allowed to appeal the decision to the House of Lords, which is Britain’s highest court. Tuesday’s finding came after the government appealed a decision last year in which a lower court judge ruled against the government’s ban, saying the government had failed to establish “objective justification” for excluding Farrakhan.

Saudis Supporting Bombers’ Families

Saudi Arabia has been providing financial support for families of suicide bombers, according to documents seized by Israeli troops during the military operation in the West Bank. The papers show that Saudi Arabia has transferred more than $500,000 to the West Bank, and the funds were then used to give $5,000 each to the families of suicide bombers, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported. The paper quoted sources in the Prime Minister’s Office as saying the money was transferred via an aid society headed by the Saudi interior minister.

Belarus Gets a JCC

A new JCC was dedicated in Belarus. The community center in Minsk includes a Jewish museum and athletic facilities. It is operated by the Union of Belarussian Jewish Organizations and Communities. Palestinian wounded in church standoff

Israeli troops shot and wounded a Palestinian at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Wednesday. Israel described the Palestinian as a gunman who was spotted in the courtyard of the church compound. He was hit in the shoulder, then surrendered along with another man, an army statement said.

Nativity Burns Engineer Sentenced

An Orange County engineer was sentenced to 40 months in prison and fined $20,000 for exporting to Israel electronic components that could be used as triggers for nuclear weapons. Richard Kelly Smyth, 72, had spent 16 years as a fugitive. Last July, he and his wife were located in Spain. Israel returned most of the components after Smyth’s indictment and said they never were intended for use in nuclear weapons.

Israeli Opium Field Found

Israeli police discovered a vast field of opium-producing poppies in the center of Israel. Investigators speculated that the field had the potential of producing opium worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Acting on intelligence information, a police investigator picked a flower at a field near Kibbutz Hulda and sent it for laboratory testing. Police are currently trying to locate those who planted the field.

Briefs complied by J.T.A.