One thing I've come to realize is that many of us have an innate, enduring loyalty to our preconceptions. We'll stick with them through thick and thin, no
matter what reality sends our way.
I first realized this some twenty years ago when a friend and I, as two young Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students, spent our summers canvassing the state of
Montana looking for Jews. We'd drive from town to town--some of which only had one or two Jewish families--and try to do our bit to encourage Jewish identity and observance.
We were quite a curiosity, and were often featured in the local newspaper. The publicity proved useful in both drawing local Jews out of the woodwork and
gaining us a welcome response when we called on people.
One thing irked me though about these newspaper stories. After spending an hour lecturing the reporter on Jewish identity and explaining about Shabbat, kosher, tefillin and mezuzah--what did s/he write about? About the "Two Hasidic Men Wearing Traditional Hasidic Black Hat and Long Black Coat" who've rolled into town.
The black hat part was true. Below the neck, however, we wore ordinary
business suits. In all fairness to the reporters, these do tend toward the
darker end of the color spectrum. Still, we weren't in town to promote
traditional hasidic garb, and we'd have much preferred that the article focus on
the more substantive parts of our message.
So one day we left our hats in the car. My partner wore a light grey suit to
the interview, and I put on the most light-colored garment I owned--a light-tan
plaid sports jacket.
Sure enough, the next day's paper ran a full-sized photograph of two hatless, light-jacketed young men posed in front of the newspaper building. One held a pair of tefillin, and the other a Shabbat candlestick. The caption under the photograph read: "Tauber, 21, and Begun, 22, two hasidic rabbis sporting the traditional black hat and long black coat, visit Montana on mission."
I was reminded again of how attached people can be to their preconceptions
when seeing the news reports on the menorah controversy at Seattle-Tacoma
The irony is that Rabbi Bogomilsky and his colleagues are squarely on the very opposite side of the debate...
First the facts: Seattle Port Authority consultant Mitchell Stein, along with
Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, a Seattle-based Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, wanted to erect
a Chanukah menorah at SeaTac Airport. The airport already had 14 large Christmas
trees set up in various places throughout their terminals.
SeaTac is a major international gateway; why not share the menorah's message
with the tens of thousands who pass through it? There's a public menorah in Red
Square. At the Eiffel Tower. Inside the Brandenburg Gate. And in
thousands of places throughout the United States and across the globe. Washington State's own governor is proudly hosting a menorah lighting ceremony in the capitol during Chanukah.
But the folks in charge at SeaTac didn't want a menorah. After weeks of stonewalling, bureaucratic double-speak and suddenly canceled meetings by Port brass, Rabbi Bogomilsky's lawyer warned of possible legal action. The airport's now infamous response was to.... remove the Christmas trees, claiming that they wouldn't be able to handle the onslaught of
religiously diverse requests.
"Rabbi Forces Removal of Christmas Trees" screamed the headlines. For the first 24 hours after the story broke, the news outlets, reflecting statements being made by airport officials, actually reported that the rabbi was "offended" by the trees and had threatened to sue to have them removed. Eventually the stories themselves became more factually correct, but the original slant remained, and most viewers
and readers were left with the impression that all this was part of what's lately being called the "War Against Christmas," spawning reams of hate mail to Jewish organizations and websites across the country.
Some of the news stories had an almost surreal quality to them: the rabbi
would be quoted insisting that he has nothing against the trees, that he never
in any way implied that he would sue to have the trees be removed, and that he
is simply fighting for the right to put up a menorah; yet as he speaks, we see
the news banner on the screen behind him: "Rabbi Threatens Lawsuit; Christmas
Trees Removed." The reporter interviews the rabbi, asking his prepared question and then delivering his prepared sign-off, as if completely oblivious to what
his interviewee has actually said.
It seems that there isn't much you can do to separate a person from his beloved preconceptions: apparently, some reporters and news editors already
"knew" that the rabbi is against the trees, and once they knew that, nothing--not even their own reportage--was going to change the way they present
Even now, when the trees are back up, the rabbi promised not to sue (at least not this year), and the airport has (sort of) intimated that they may respond positively to his request.... next year (maybe), the media continues to spin the "War Against Christmas" story and the hate mail continues to pour in.
The irony is that, for the last 25 years, there has been an ongoing debate within the Jewish community on the very issue of religious displays in public
places during the winter holiday season--with Rabbi Bogomilsky and his colleagues squarely on the very opposite side of the debate than the side that's
being attributed to him.
The sight of one menorah burning proudly through the night will do more for Jewish continuity than the removal of 1000 Christmas trees...
There are 300 million people living in America, a large majority of whom are proud Christians; among them live about 5 million Jews. Come December, trees and
other holiday paraphernalia blossom forth throughout the length and breadth of
the land. Many Jews feel challenged by this phenomenon. "How can I raise my
child to feel secure in and proud of his Jewishness," they wonder, "when he's
confronted by these displays in every store window, hotel lobby and village square? How can I myself avoid feeling resentful, left out, discriminated against?"
Not long ago, the answer for many was: We'll fight the trees! We'll take them
to court, we'll cite the Establishment Clause, and get all religious symbols
removed from the public domain.
Chabad-Lubavitch took a different tack. Don't fight to remove the trees--put
up menorahs! Don't direct your efforts to make America "less Christian"--work to
celebrate America's freedom to encourage Jews in their Jewishness. Would not a
single positive message be so much more effective than a thousand un-messages?
Would not the sight of a single menorah burning proudly through the night do
more for Jewish pride and Jewish continuity than the removal of a thousand trees?
Today, most of the Jewish community has been won over to this view. But it
wasn't so long ago that Chabad-Lubavitch encountered vehement opposition for
spearheading the "shower them with light" approach. I remember one particular
year in the mid 1980's when I was involved in helping organize the activities
surrounding the public menorah lightings during Chanukah in Seattle (yes, the
very same Seattle). A national Jewish organization took the city to court to try
and force them to revoke their permission for Chabad-Lubavitch to put up the
menorah. They were actually quite apologetic to us: "Please understand, we have
nothing against your menorah, but we're suing the city to make them take down
the Christmas trees and crèches, so in all fairness, we need to fight the
So, irony of ironies, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi trying to put up a menorah is
portrayed in hundreds of newspapers and television broadcasts from coast to
coast as... the man who made SeaTac Airport remove the trees.
Shamefully, the airport is still obfuscating about why it is one of the only
places in the United States to deny a menorah request. Hopefully in the short
time left between now and Chanukah they will "see the light."
But if there's a lesson here for the rest of us, it may simply be: don't
presume. Don't think that you already know what your fellow human being is all
about, what he or she stands for, what s/he wants to achieve. If we'd listen to each other more, we might actually like what we hear.
Please be sure to visit
www.chanukah.org to learn all about the meaning and practice of the Chanukah holiday, as well as to find local Chanukah celebrations.