A public menorah is a large menorah displayed publicly during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. It is done to celebrate the holiday and publicize the miracle of Hanukkah, and is typically accompanied by a public event during one of the nights of Hanukkah attended by invited dignitaries who are honored with lighting the menorah.
The lighting ceremony is often augmented by festivities such as singing, dancing, and traditional Hanukkah foods. Public menorahs are often associated with the Chabad movement and its outreach activities.
The concept of lighting a menorah in a public area dates back to ancient times, where menorahs were lit outside of people's homes and in other public places. Today, home menorahs are often kindled in a window that faces the public thoroughfare. In the modern era, public menorah lighting dates back to 1974, when Rabbi Abraham Shemtov of Philadelphia’s Chabad-Lubavitch Center kindled a small menorah at the foot of the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall. The following year, in 1975, legendary rock prompter Bill Graham sponsored Chabad's menorah in San Francisco.
Notable Menorah Lightings
White House National Menorah
Since 1979, the White House has lit a menorah on its grounds in celebration of Hanukkah. President Jimmy Carter attended that first ceremony, and President Ronald Reagan designated it the National Menorah. In 2009 the ceremony included then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (now mayor of Chicago), followed by Chief of Staff Jack Lew in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, the first candle was lit with the help of Jeffrey Zients, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Each year Nicosia has lit a National Menorah in celebration of Hanukkah. Nicosia as the capital of the Republic of Cyprus has been the pioneer city to put a Menorah in its city center.
Each year, the House of Commons of the United Kingdom holds a menorah lighting at the home of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The menorah currently used was commissioned by the Rt. Hon. Michael J. Martin MP, former Speaker of the House of Commons.
New York City
The world's largest menorah stands at 32 feet and is lit at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan near Central Park. A 4,000-pound structure, it is the work of Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. Because of the menorah’s height, Con Edison assists the lighting by using a crane to lift each person to the top. A Guinness World Record is pending
Chabad-Lubavitch menorah campaign
Public display and lightings of menorahs are often associated with the Chabad movement. It started in 1974 when the first public menorah was erected by Chabad, and continued to grow over the decade until 1987, when the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, instructed followers to initiate a campaign to erect public menorahs, saying that "Wherever Jews live, large Menorahs should be lit to publicize the Chanukah miracle and an effort should be made that every Jew light candles in his home." adding that "may this also allow everyone to illuminate his soul with the light of Torah and also, light up the entire public thoroughfare, increasing light every day. Following this statement, his followers began organizing public lightings to which they would invite the local community. Within Chabad, these lightings are viewed as a way to reach out to secular and/or non-affiliated Jews in high-density population areas and to promote Torah observance among Jews. Today these menorahs are found all over the globe.
There has been controversy with the public display and lightings of the menorah. Due to Chabad's prominent role in such lighting ceremonies, Chabad has often been the focus of either defending or being criticized for such lightings. In 1989, the County of Allegheny with the support of Chabad, won in the United States Supreme Court against the ACLU in County of Allegheny v. ACLU over the display of a Chabad-owned public menorah. In 1988, the American Jewish Congress produced a 28-page report entitled "The Year of the Menorah", criticizing Chabad's public menorah campaign and the litigation that went with it. It complained of the increase in the number of menorahs placed on public lands, arguing that it was causing tension both within the community and with non-Jews.
In 1989, the city of Burlington, Vermont denied the local Chabad chapter, headed by Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin permission to erect a menorah in the city's main park during Hanukkah. Raskin appealed the decision on two occasions after an initial hearing 1987 found the display to be unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The ACLU assisted the City of Burlington in a final appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1991, and the menorah ban was upheld. There have been similar cases involving Chabad public menorahs with the courts ruling against Chabad, including Chicago (1990) Iowa (1986), Cincinnati (1991), and Georgia (1991). In addition, in 1991, in White Plains, New York, the Common Council unanimously rejected the display of a Chabad menorah in a public space in the town with the support of many Jews, affirming a local tradition of keeping parks free of religious and political displays.
On the other hand, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Rabbi Sholom B. Kalmanson of Chabad of Southern Ohio to light an 18-foot menorah in Cincinnati's Fountain Square. Justice John Paul Stevens upheld a lower court ruling that the city could not ban the menorah and other religious displays from the square.
Due to the menorah being a Jewish symbol, menorahs in public have been subject to anti-Semitic violence. For instance, in 2009 in Moldova, a group of fundamentalist Orthodox Christians took down a public menorah and replaced it with a cross. The same year, in Vienna, Austria, a Chabad rabbi was attacked by a Muslim man while leading the candle lighting ceremony.
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