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Menorahs mean more in the face of rising anti-Semitism

Menorahs mean more in the face of rising anti-Semitism

People drive through sleepy suburban neighborhoods during the Christmas season to catch a glimpse of the glowing Christmas lights. But some homes house a smaller, simpler set of lights in their windows: a menorah.

This particular candelabra serves as a symbol of light and peace for the Jews during Hanukkah and commemorates Jewish survival against incredible odds.

This year, those odds might feel particularly pronounced.

The ADL counted 2,717 anti-Semitic incidents in the US last year — an all-time high and a 34% increase from the previous year. Not to mention Kanye “Ye” West and Kyrie Irving’s high-profile anti-Semitic rhetoric dominating the news cycle.

“If we don’t address it now, we know the path antisemitism could take, and it won’t be good for Jews, but it won’t be good for anyone,” said Adam Neufeld, the Anti-Defamation League’s vice president for innovation and strategy.

Placing menorahs in windows is a sign of strength amid disputes, Jewish community leaders say, but some Jews are afraid to place menorahs amid rising anti-Semitism in the US

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Thousands of menorahs in Billings, Montana

Jews light the menorah during Hanukkah to commemorate the wonderful triumph of the Maccabees of ancient times by lighting a candle every night for eight nights. Classic Jewish texts recommend putting menorahs in windows of houses to publicize the celebration of a miracle.

“In a way, the light is spread in a way,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “The light of understanding, the light of tolerance, the light of Jewish identity, all of that.”

But will a menorah in a window really make a difference in the fight against anti-Semitism?

It can – and has.

Look no further than the town of Billings, Montana, whose citizens fought back in 1993 after someone threw a brick through the bedroom window of then 5-year-old Isaac Schnitzer. According to the New York Times, a menorah in the window sparked the attack. The Billings Gazette then published a drawing of the menorah, and thousands hung these makeshift menorahs in their windows. Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Billings Gazette is recreating the full-page menorah ad this year and is asking the community to repeat the story and place it in their storefronts. The move comes after swastikas and threatening messages recently surfaced at a local high school.

“It’s important to celebrate this anniversary because we never want to forget the power of love,” said Bill Cole, Mayor of Billings. “Mean decency is stronger than hate.”

Billings works with Shine A Light, a coalition of organizations raising awareness of antisemitism. In addition to engaging with multiple local communities like Billings, the group has partnered with companies like Google, iHeart Media and Airbnb.

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All of this begs the question some 30 years later, “What can the wider community do to make Jewish families and the Jewish community feel safer at a very uncertain moment?” asks Jacobs.

Menorahs in public spaces suggest solidarity at this time of year.

“It’s a statement against anti-Semitism in general given what happened,” Neufeld said. “It is a sign of solidarity with Jews that they are not alone and that these attacks affect everyone. It’s also a profound realization that antisemitism doesn’t just affect Jews, it affects everyone, that it’s part of the conspiratorial glue that’s the key to so much hatred in society today.”

What Jews Should Do If They’re Afraid to Put Up a Menorah

While placing a menorah in a window is recommended, Jewish law also states that in times of danger it is sufficient to place the menorah on one’s table, not in public on the windowsill. Jews must decide for themselves whether they feel safe enough.

“Even in a place like New York City, where I live, it’s certainly a place with a dense Jewish community, there’s just a feeling this year; we’re all nervous,” says Jacobs. He wouldn’t want anyone to feel they were being any less authentically observant if they didn’t put a menorah in their window. “It’s a legitimate choice,” he adds. “And the fear is real.”

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Without intervention, anti-Semitism will only increase at all levels of society, says Neufeld. “The great thing about the menorah and the season we’re in is that this month you don’t have to go down and stand up for a bill,” he adds. “It’s great when you do that, but you can just put up a menorah, you can speak out among your friends, you can teach about anti-Semitism in the workplace and you can start turning that tide. If we all do that, I’m confident we can put a real dent in this.”

And don’t forget that anti-Semitism breeds other forms of hate as well.

“We’re seeing the statistics of the rise in anti-Semitic acts, and it’s a very, very serious challenge. I would also say that it is a challenge for the wider community because antisemitism is in a way the canary in the coal mine.”

Whatever the case, this Hanukkah, think of more than the candlelight staring at you.

As Jacobs says, “We should also take this moment to reflect on Jewish history and the moments when we were not only incredibly vulnerable, but attacked and fought for our lives.”

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