As we head into the Hanukkah season - only 10 more shopping days to find that one perfect gift for your kids, followed by 7 nights of socks - I wanted to share a story. My previous congregation of Har Mishpacha of Steamboat Springs Colorado was part of a little drama many years ago - that has taken on the stuff of legend.
Back in 2014, a member at my congregation, Randy Salky, created a big electric hanukkiah a few months before Hanukkah. Our shul didn’t have a building - we generally wandered between the community room of a local condo complex near the ski mountain, and the social hall of the local methodist church, depending on the vagaries of how the board was feeling that year. In the center of town, on the main street, the county courthouse had a big lawn, and every year at Christmas time, they strung lights on the large pine tree and set up a Santa’s hut with some empty boxes masquerading as presents. And so Randy asked the County commissioners if we could put up the hanukkah menorah next to the christmas tree. To which they replied: no.
Now, of course, this seemed strange. The county courthouse was public land, and they were willing to acknowledge a religious holiday - Christmas, which is the holiday of one specific religion. Most of you have likely heard of ‘the establishment clause’, which is the first section of the first amendment to the bill of rights. It reads: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’
The president of our congregation then attended the open county commissioners meeting to formally request that the county display the hanukkah menorah. The commissioner upheld the previous decision by the county manager to not allow the menorah.
At this point, the congregation’s leadership had a choice. We could press the issue by threatening legal action, or find another solution.
Now, many of you know me. I am not one to turn away from a fight. I also have an overdeveloped sense of justice, particularly when it comes to matters of the first amendment. I also tend to tell it like it is. However, Steamboat Springs in Routt County Colorado is not like Pittsburgh or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. This is a small mountain town. Steamboat’s most illustrious main street merchant, FM Light and Sons, sells cowboy hats. Until the mid 80s, the county’s main industries were coal mining and cattle ranching. Our congressional representatives have included both Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Lauren Boebert. The county has a total population of 24,000 people, which is slightly smaller than the population of Squirrel Hill. Har Mishpacha was the only synagogue located within a hundred miles in any direction, which is why I occasionally liked to brag that I was the Chief rabbi of all of Northwest Colorado.
This all means that being Jewish in Steamboat is a lot different than being Jewish in Pittsburgh. I was supremely aware of this when I walked down main street in a kippah, and I would notice that people regularly and frequently stared at me. In other words, suing the county for the right to display a hanukkah menorah wasn’t something the community was interested in.
I will add that, for those who have never explored the history of this matter in America, the legal proceedings regarding courthouse lawn religious displays in December are robust - there are at least three major supreme court decisions on the issue. I would guess that some of you actually know this quite well, like for instance Nate Firestone, or Sheldon Catz, or Kenny Steinberg, because in 1989, the issue of what religious or holiday symbols would or would not be allowed on federal, state, or municipal property came before the US Supreme Court in a case called - wait for it - County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union. The county courthouse had in front of it a nativity scene, a christmas tree, and a hanukkah menorah. By a 5 to 4 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that the nativity scene was a violation of the establishment clause. By a 6 to 3 majority, the court held that the display of the menorah was constitutional. Essentially the justices were greatly divided over whether a menorah is more of a religious symbol, making it akin to the nativity scene, or a secular holiday display, like a christmas tree, and thus left the door open for every county courthouse in America to do what it wanted regarding the hanukkiah. Routt County said no.
So Har Mishpacha was stuck with a giant electric menorah and no place to display it. Enter Reverend Tim Selby, my collegue and friend at Heart of Steamboat methodist church. Reverend Tim called our board president and said ‘put the menorah up at our church.’ And so we did. And at Friday night services on December 18, the Jewish Community lit our menorah in front of the Christian church and sang Hanukkah songs and drank hot chocolate. It was 10 degrees out. I wore two pairs of socks and I was still cold.
Fast forward two years. Har Mishpacha has met every month for our shabbat service at the Methodist church. Heart of Steamboat was about to renovate their social hall. And they asked our board if we had any requests of how and what the hall might look like. Because Heart of Steamboat wanted us to move in with them permanently. Today, if you go to Steamboat Springs, you’ll find a church that is also a synagogue just off the main street, with a sign out front for Heart of Steamboat, Har Mishpacha, and for good measure, the Buddhist Center of Steamboat Springs.
There is a somewhat ironic and humorous post-script to this story. A few days after our shabbat service, a lady and her dog were out for a walk in Steamboat Springs and stepped onto a sewer grate near the courthouse, and got a mild electrical shock. It seems the holiday lights connected to tree on the lawn and down the street had somehow gotten connected to the metal sewage pipes and become electrified. So, as a precaution, the city had to take down all the christmas lights in 2014. On December 23rd.
We’re living through contentious times. We’re living through anxious times. We come to this moment in 2022, before the twin holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah, which have often for our country provoked an open discussion about America’s relationship with religion in the public sphere, about America’s moral or religious degeneration. The pessimist might look at the story of America right now and see ominous warning signs for us going forward - religious fundamentalism on the rise, ugly public pronouncements and conspiracy theories about Jews from big celebrities, a feeling that the loudest voices in both our culture and our political realm are also the most toxic. That Jews are Other in this American culture, that we do not belong. Take your menorah off of the county lawn, please, and don’t come back. This is the paradigm of Jacob at the beginning of our parasha - the Jacob that is afraid of Esau, that splits his camp in two just in case, the Jacob that sends messengers saying ‘I have many flocks and servants’, implying that whatever violence Esau plans to do to Jacob can be forestalled with a big payoff.
But there’s another paradigm. One of optimism. One that says tomorrow will be better today because we will make it better. Because we will engage our neighbors and stay in dialogue with them and be patient through the ugly moments and build those relationships. We are not Other in this culture, and most people do not think ill of most Jews. Here, you can put your menorah in front of our church, and you are welcome here, and we are sisters and brothers together. Because ultimately, despite Jacob’s fears, Esau hugs him and kisses him and falls on his neck, and the two reunite as brothers. There is more that unites them then divides them. Shabbat Shalom.