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Menorah Goes Up in Pittsburgh on the Fifth Night of Chanukah

December 27, 1989
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After a progression of legal battles and a trip to the Supreme Court, members of the Chabad Lubavitch movement succeeded Tuesday evening, on the fifth night of Chanukah, in erecting a menorah on the steps of Pittsburgh City Hall.

The issue of the display of menorahs on government property fell into the hands of the Supreme Court for the second time this year last Friday, shortly before the eight-day Jewish holiday began.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. ruled Friday afternoon that the Pittsburgh city government must, for the moment, grant Chabad permission to put up a menorah on the steps of City Hall, next to the city’s Christmas tree.

In doing so, he reinstated a federal district court order that had been overturned last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

Following Brennan’s ruling, Chabad wound up back in federal district court to contest the amount of money the city required as bond for the menorah. That battle and the logistical problems of obtaining bond money over the holiday weekend meant the menorah could not be put up until Tuesday.

Nathan Lewin, the attorney for Chabad, said he was “gratified” by Brennan’s ruling.

“It’s unfortunate that the proceedings delayed the display of the menorah as long as they did, but we are pleased that (Brennan) made this decision,” he said.

Pittsburgh city attorney George Spector said that he was preparing an appeal to the entire Supreme Court to reverse Brennan’s ruling. He said he “had no idea” whether there was a realistic chance the full court would be able to take up the issue before Chanukah ended.


Lawyers for the city and for Chabad have been involved in this tangle of litigation ever since Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff, who is Jewish, announced that her administration did not want the menorah displayed.

The Masloff administration’s decision to oppose the menorah came in the aftermath of last July’s Supreme Court ruling on the issue in Pittsburgh.

The high court ruled at that time that while a menorah standing beside a Christmas tree was constitutional, a nativity scene displayed alone. in a courthouse was not.

But the city decided this fall that if there would be no nativity scene, there would be no menorah.

Brennan’s decision to temporarily force the city to permit the menorah would indicate that cities presently have little leeway to oppose religious symbols on public property, as long as they are part of larger holiday displays.

Such a trend would disappoint groups, such as the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, that oppose the display of any religious symbols, including menorahs, on public property.

AJCongress attorney Mare Stern said his organization will now ” be urging cities to adopt ordinances that free-standing displays cannot be displayed on public property.”

Lewin called the AJCongress effort “outlandish and offensive.”

The Pittsburgh case as a whole now goes back to the federal district court, where Chabad and the city will vie for a permanent ruling.

Similar cases in other cities are also in litigation, and it seems probable that the issue will return to the Supreme Court during the coming years.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Chabad does not seem to have run into any similar legal snags in its campaign to put up large menorahs in public places.

In a suburb of Amsterdam, a menorah placed in a shopping center was said to be the first public display of a menorah in Dutch Jewish history.

In Rome, Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and the city’s new mayor, Franco Carraro, supervised the lighting of the menorah set up in the downtown Piazza Barberini, at the foot of the Via Veneto.

The lighting of menorahs in Moscow, London, Paris and Jerusalem were to be simultaneously broadcast Tuesday via satellite on video screens at Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn.

(JTA correspondents Ruth E. Gruber in Rome and Henrietta Boas in Amsterdam contributed to this report.)

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