For several years, a menorah has stood alongside the Christmas tree inside the county courthouse in Missoula, Mont. This year, a local rabbi asked officials to erect a Hanukkah display on the courthouse lawn, too, to show support for the community’s small Jewish population.
The request sparked a passionate public debate — one that has played out in a handful of other places across the country, as the Israel-Hamas war has inflamed tensions and raised concerns among some Jews about visible displays of their religion at a time of discord and rising antisemitism.
“In this specific historic moment,” said Josh Slotnick, a county commissioner in Missoula who is Jewish, a large outdoor menorah could “erroneously be seen as a political symbol, not a religious symbol.”
Across the country, most public celebrations of Hanukkah, the eight-night Jewish holiday that begins Thursday at sundown, appear to be going ahead without disruption, according to the Jewish Federations of North America, which works with Jewish event organizers across the United States.
In Detroit, “we have more R.S.V.P.s this year than we have had in previous years,” said Benji Rosenzweig, a producer of an annual menorah lighting ceremony. Police agencies in the city have said they plan to keep a close eye on potential threats.
Security Community Network, a nonprofit organization that advises Jewish institutions, responded to questions about the safety of Hanukkah celebrations with a video briefing on Tuesday that encouraged people to go ahead, but also to prepare for possible demonstrations, and to stay in touch with local law enforcement.
“We take security very seriously,” said Eric Fingerhut, the president of the Jewish Federations, which organized the security network after 9/11 and has seen it expand rapidly since the 2018 murder of 11 Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh. “But the goal of the security is to enable us to continue to participate in Jewish life actively.”
A small number of Hanukkah-related events have drawn extra attention or controversy this year, including in Williamsburg, Va., where organizers of a community festival decided not to include a menorah lighting, drawing condemnation from the state’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin.
“Singling out the Jewish community by canceling this Hanukkah celebration is absurd and antisemitic,” he posted on social media.
A festival organizer did not respond to requests for comment, but told other news outlets that the festival had always welcomed Jewish participants and that it had never hosted a menorah lighting before.
Rabbi Mendy Heber of Chabad Williamsburg, who had requested the ceremony, described the decision as “a kick in the gut.” But he noted that a lighting would still take place at William & Mary, a university in Williamsburg.
“We’re going to make this Hanukkah bigger and brighter than ever,” he said. “That is how we respond to darkness.”
In some homes, however, concerns about safety and disagreements over the war have led Jews to ask if they feel comfortable with a public display of their religion.
Adam Kulbersh was initially reluctant when his 6-year-old son asked whether they were putting up decorations. “Hanukkah does feel different this year,” said Mr. Kulbersh, an actor in Los Angeles. “The massive spike in antisemitism has many of us scared.”
But after a non-Jewish friend volunteered to display a menorah in solidarity, Mr. Kulbersh said his fears began to dissipate. A menorah now brightens his apartment window, and Mr. Kulbersh started an online campaign to ask other non-Jews to follow his friend’s example.
He named the effort Project Menorah and said people in about two dozen states have volunteered.
The candelabras lit on Hanukkah are technically called hanukkiahs. They have eight candles plus one more, a shamash, that is used for lighting the others.
“The menorah represents, for me personally, that goodness, kindness and warmth ultimately always wins over,” said Rabbi Chezky Vogel of the Chabad Jewish Center of Missoula, who had requested the outdoor display at the county courthouse.
“There is a lot of emotional isolation associated with being Jewish here at a time like this,” Rabbi Vogel said, disagreeing with Mr. Slotnick, the county commissioner who was concerned that some might interpret the display as political. A menorah, Rabbi Vogel said, is not about signifying support for Israel.
Another leader of the small Jewish community, however, counseled prudence. Laurie Franklin, the rabbi emerita of Har Shalom in Missoula, said the commissioners were “being asked to make a decision very quickly about doing something on public property. That has an awful lot of nuance to it.”
In the end, officials decided to keep things as they were, with a menorah inside the courthouse rotunda but not on the lawn. Rabbi Vogel said he hoped to change their minds in the future.
Rabbi Franklin said that she would continue to enjoy the menorah outside her synagogue, as well as a smaller one at home.
“Jews are not a uniform community,” she said. “We don’t have necessarily all the same political views. We don’t necessarily have the same view of the conflict in Israel and Gaza. But lighting the menorah is a beautiful act of unification.”
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