The Oak Bluffs Select Board is waiting to get an opinion from the town’s legal counsel before agreeing to display a 9-foot-tall menorah in Ocean Park.
On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Chabad on the Vineyard director Rabbi Tzvi Alperowitz came to the board requesting to set up a menorah display for Hanukkah, which lasts from Dec. 7 to 15.
“The point is to raise awareness about Hanukkah on the Island for the Jewish community, and in the spirit of diversity,” Alperowitz said, adding that the Jewish community should feel their holiday is being celebrated, especially in the “light of anti-Semitism.”
In early November, the Anti-Defamation League reported a more than 300 percent rise in anti-Semitism since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack against Israel.
Alperowitz said menorah displays are done all across the country, including at the White House. He said that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling stated that a menorah was not considered a religious symbol, but rather, like Christmas lights, a cultural symbol, allowing them on government and public properties. On the Island, Tisbury has also allowed a menorah display at Owen Park.
In a 1989 case, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an 18-foot-tall menorah displayed in Pennsylvania was not deemed an endorsement of Judaism, since the display was accompanied by a Christmas tree, widely viewed as a secular symbol. In turn, the menorah was also deemed another way to celebrate the holiday season. A display reading “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ” was seen as an endorsement of Christianity, and a violation of the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government entities from showing favor toward a certain religion, in the same suit.
“Ocean Park was where I was thinking, but it can be really anywhere else,” Alperowitz said, adding that his group would be willing to raise the funds for the menorah, which would then be donated to the town so it can be displayed annually.
Overall, the board was in favor of moving forward with the display, but some officials wanted more information.
Board chair Emma Green-Beach pointed out that the display request, if it goes to Ocean Park, would need approval from the Oak Bluffs parks commission. Additionally, Oak Bluffs adopted a holiday display policy last year, which is meant to prohibit the town from advancing or inhibiting any particular group through decorations, although “symbols that reflect various seasonal and holiday celebrations of the community” will still decorate town-owned properties. Only items owned by the town or contracted by the town will be deemed suitable for display.
“I feel like I need some confirmation from our legal counsel,” Green-Beach said, referring to the Supreme Court decision.
Alperowitz said the group is considering a nine-foot-tall and roughly four-foot-wide menorah, but it could be smaller if need be. The price of a nine-foot menorah is $2,900, while a smaller, six-foot menorah is $2,500. Board member Jason Balboni requested Alperowitz send over further details about the display.
Board member Thomas Hallahan pointed out that there was still some time before Hanukkah began. He also pointed out that menorah displays were done in many places in the U.S. “As it should be,” he said.
Another issue brought up was whether there would be enough space in Ocean Park for a large display, considering other holiday decorations. Oak Bluffs parks commission chair Antone Lima said there will be more moderation of holiday displays in the park than before, so he didn’t see an issue.
“We’ve been trying to tone back our park display anyway, from what it had grown to be over the past several years,” he said.
The board recommended Alperowitz purchase the display menorah in the meantime.
“If counsel doesn’t come back, then I guess we look at it next year, or a different place to put it,” board member Dion Alley said, saying there would be “no real risk” in purchasing the menorah if Alperowitz was confident about the Supreme Court ruling.
Alperowitz said Tisbury has also looked into the menorah before. The rabbi said he was comfortable purchasing the menorah. “I’m confident in the legal side,” he said. “If that’s the only matter of concern, then I’m confident. But if you have other things you’re looking at, or have any other reasons … that’d be a different story.”
Lima said the case seemed “pretty settled,” but agreed it would be good to receive input from town counsel so the town isn’t “inundated” with other holiday requests between November and the end of the year.