Lighting the ‘National Menorah

The 25th anniversary lighting of the National Chanukah Menorah on the Ellipse in Washington, on Dec. 7. (Arnie Sachs )

The 25th anniversary lighting of the National Chanukah Menorah on the Ellipse in Washington, on Dec. 7. (Arnie Sachs )

WASHINGTON, Dec. 9 — Rabbi Levi Shemtov was just 11 years old the first time a giant Chanukah menorah was set on Lafayette Park, across from the White House. President Jimmy Carter lit the 30-foot chanukiah, placed by American Friends of Lubavitch, dubbing it the “National Menorah.” The year was 1979, and Lubavitch Chabad was just beginning to bring Chanukah menorahs to public places throughout the country. “I came just as it was ending,” Shemtov remembers about that first ceremony, which was attended by fewer than 50 people. “We were with people who just came from Russia and they were flabbergasted” to see a Chanukah celebration so close to the White House. Twenty-five years later, Shemtov, now director of the American Friends of Lubavitch’s Washington office, presided over a Chanukah lighting on Tuesday evening, this one on the Ellipse, that drew more than 1,500 spectators and a host of dignitaries. On hand for the lighting of the first candle on the 30-foot menorah, were Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and former Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstadt. “Chanukah reminds us of the power of a single act to illuminate the world. Twenty-five years ago, this national tradition was struck by a spark set by the American Friends of Lubavitch,” Norton said Tuesday, according to Shemtov. “But tonight’s light was actually kindled more than 2,000 years ago.” Shemtov credits Eizenstadt, then special adviser to the president, for getting Lubavitch the initial permission for the event. “If not for him, it wouldn’t have happened,” the rabbi said. Eizenstadt recalls receiving a call from Shemtov’s father, Avraham, complaining that the Interior Department had turned down Lubavitch’s permit request to erect the menorah, on the grounds it violated the First Amendment’s clause on church-state separation. Eizenstadt appealed to then Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus. Referring to the annual Christmas tree on the Ellipse, he remembered telling the secretary, “I don’t see how you can grant one, and not the other.” When Andrus resisted, Eizenstadt said he told him, “If you don’t agree to this, I’m going to take this to President Carter and you’re going to lose.” Andrus ultimately issued the permit. But the menorah was not without controversy. Some liberal Jewish groups argued that it violated church-state separation. Battles over religious displays on public property have reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In three separate cases, the court defended the display of religious symbols, including the display of a Lubavitch menorah on government property in Cincinnati’s Fountain Square in 2002, when John Paul Stevens ruled that the city could not ban the menorah and other religious objects. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the legality of displaying the Ten Commandments in public in 2005. A negative ruling on this decision could open the way for more legal challenges to the public display of religious objects, according to Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League. Shemtov views the lighting of the national menorah as a public service, citing commendation letters on the occasion of the 25th anniversary from most of the nation’s governors. “Religion in the public square might not be” the Lubavitch movement’s “prerogative, but the inclusion of our religion in the public square is our prerogative,” he said last week. “For people who have problems with inclusion of religion in the public square, removal of all Jewish symbols will not lead to the removal of all Christian symbols.” Eizenstadt sees the chanukiah as a symbol of religious pluralism and evidence of “Jews being more willing to demonstrate pride in their religion.” It also is a symbol of American governmental tolerance and respect for diversity, he said on Monday. Those attending Tuesday’s event heard from Capt. Shmuel Leib Felvenberg, an army chaplain who spoke to the crowd by telephone from Iraq. “His basic message was that support for the troops is really important to those serving,” Shemtov reported. Tuesday’s celebration also included performances by a singing trio known as the “The Three Cantors,” the United States Navy Band and the Military District of Washington Band. National Menorah Essay Contest finalists Vivian Franks and Joshua Drucker, both students at the Hebrew Day Institute in Silver Spring, read their winning essays, and the crowd was treated to latkes and jelly donuts. “It is a mitzvah for one person to light the Chanukah menorah in a centrally dedicated display for the general public to see,” Shemtov said. “Awareness and appreciation of the miracle is maximized.” Lubavitch issued a commemorative coin for the silver anniversary, featuring the menorah, White House and a flag on one side, an oil flask and latkes on the other. (Debra Rubin, Washington Jewish Week editor, contributed to this article)

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