A Missoula-based rabbi’s request to light a menorah during Hanukkah prompted a discussion by the Ravalli County Commission Monday on whether to allow it on county-owned property.
Rabbi Berry Nash initially told the commission he wanted to set up the menorah this year and in years to come on county property — possibly in front of the courthouse or county buildings — and maybe provide jelly doughnuts, while a guest of honor explains the significance of both the doughnuts and the menorah in the Jewish faith.
The doughnuts, sufganiyot, and other fried foods are eaten at Hanukkah to commemorate the miracle of a single day's supply of oil that lasted for eight days (hence, the eight-day festival of Hanukkah) when the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated in the year 165 BC.
Nash, a Lubavitcher rabbi, said he takes any opportunity to make such explanations. "You will see that menorahs will continue to flourish throughout the world,” Nash said. “We always think of growing; you never stop.”
But county commissioners hesitated, wondering why he was making the request to Ravalli County instead of Missoula County, why he made that request now, and where exactly did he want the menorah displayed. They suspected that it had something to do with the commission’s recent decision to buy $1,500 worth of lights that would be put up on a tree in front of the courthouse.
That led to lengthy discussions about symbolism — is a Christmas tree a religious symbol? — and whether if one is allowed on public property, must other religions’ symbols be allowed? Commissioners also seemed wary about whether they were being set up for a lawsuit if they declined Nash’s request.
“Rabbi, with due respect, what happens if we say outright no?” Commissioner Chris Hoffman asked. “Based on your comments, if we allow Christmas trees, which is as symbolic as a menorah — is that where you’re heading?”
Nash replied that there is a possibility that it becomes something bigger.
“I’m not issuing any threats; you gentlemen seem to be people of high standards,” Nash said. “What if we invite the community to one night of the menorah lighting? One night, have the community come and just experience the menorah? Jews, non-Jews, and see where it goes?”
Commissioner Ray Hawk said he’s not sure he wants to go down that road, believing it would lead to putting up menorahs, Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, and statues of Buddha on county grounds.
“You know that if we say yes to you, we say yes to everyone?” Hawk asked.
Nash replied that he didn’t agree, and said he brought up the idea in Ravalli County because he has Jews in his congregation who live here. He added that the menorah isn’t necessarily a religious symbol, noting that he has Jewish friends who are atheists but display a menorah.
“It’s nothing you did, it is just a matter of time,” Nash said. “The purpose the menorah presents is that if there’s darkness in the world, let’s spread light. … We do not fight fire with fire, but with something good. The menorah is adding light to the world.”
While one audience member spoke in favor of the proposal, former planning board president Jan Wisniewski noted that the original request to discuss the matter came from Elliott Oppenheim. A few years ago, Oppenheim threatened to sue the planning board after a prayer was said before a meeting, Wisniewski said.
“He (Oppenheim) said if we didn’t cease and desist, he would personally sue the planning board,” Wisniewski said. “My BS alarm is going off really loud, like Charlie Manson coming in here and trying to be a public relations officer.”
Nash said he wasn’t a defense attorney, so he wouldn’t defend Oppenheim. Commissioner Jeff Burrows noted that Oppenheim had asked a different commissioner about the seemingly double standard involving Christmas trees and menorahs.
County Attorney Howard Recht tried to provide some guidance regarding potentially religious symbols, but pointed out that one year, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the display of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, but disapproved of it the next.
“Trying to ascertain why they allowed it one time and not another at the same time turns on distinctions only the Supreme Court can ascertain,” Recht said. “But if it’s a secular nature of display as opposed to being religious in nature, then it has been approved.”
Eventually, the commissioners told Nash he could see if the Ravalli County Fairgrounds has space available for a one-night menorah lighting event, and Nash said that would work for him this year.
But all of those involved said the county probably needs to put together a policy for years to come on what type of displays will be allowed on county-owned property.
“You need to recognize in the policy that you don’t allow hate speech, proselytizing, how to be safe and protective of individuals and how to manage a balance — like if you allow a 10-by-20 booth on the lawn from December to Jan. 1, and every Christian church wanted to put a Nativity scene …” Recht said. “If the county is going to work on a policy, we’ll want to solicit information from a variety of groups so the policy that’s developed is defensible in court and under the law, will not lead to a lawsuit and will be a solution where no group is favored or oppressed.”
And that $1,500 for lights for the tree on the courthouse lawn? That wasn’t possible due to the timing constraints this year, but old, burned-out bulbs remain on the tree from decades ago.
“The new lights were going to be a part of a Bitterroot lights tour, along Main Street, the Bedford building and the park doing a big light deal there,” Burrows said after the meeting. “Curtis Brickley was trying to get us involved in decorating our block. He started around Thanksgiving, and that was too late to get going.”