DURHAM — The rabbi at UNH & Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center says he will continue to fight for the right to have a menorah displayed at a public park in the town of Durham.
Rabbi Berel Slavaticki says he is committed to working with town staff to create a way for everyone to enjoy their right to freedom of expression during the holiday season.
The town’s administrator recently denied a request by the rabbi to display a 9-foot menorah next to the holiday tree in Memorial Park, citing the risk of vandalism and public safety.
“Not allowing a menorah for fear of anti-Semitism only emboldens and enables those who hate. After all, that’s exactly what they’d want to see; our menorah not allowed,” Slavaticki said in a statement released Tuesday.
“If we can find the room in our hearts for people of all faiths and backgrounds, certainly we can find the room in our parks as well,” Slavaticki said.
The denial of the rabbi’s request led to a compromise where there was a ceremony allowed at a different park Sunday evening, but no long-term display to celebrate the season of Hanukkah. It also led to a decision by the town’s Human Rights Commission to suggest an end to the lighting of Durham’s holiday tree.
The Human Rights Commission recommended ceasing the holiday tree tradition last month, with members saying it is associated with the Christian faith and Christmas celebrations, which may be exclusionary to some people who follow different faiths or are atheist.
The holiday tree is currently lit and on display at the park while a debate on the best way to move forward has been sparked in town, with some people saying an all-inclusive winter carnival theme might be more appropriate in Memorial Park. Others say everyone should have the chance to express their religious beliefs on the small plot of public land along Main Street.
Slavaticki said Wednesday afternoon he believes his congregants have the right to enjoy what he calls their constitutionally guaranteed rights.
“I believe all faiths and cultures should have the freedom to publicly express themselves. It was on the principles of equity and religious freedom upon which this great nation was founded. The solution to anti-semitism is not to take down a menorah, or any other cultural symbol for that matter,” Slavaticki said.
Slavaticki said there are hundreds of towns and cities around the country which allow menorahs. The center estimates 15,000 public menorahs will be lit throughout Hanukkah in 100 countries and in all 50 U.S. states.
Melanie Zalman McDonald is the executive director of Jewish Federation of New Hampshire in Manchester. She said there are several menorahs on display in the Granite State.
McDonald said there is one in Manchester at City Hall Plaza and in the town of Bethlehem. There was also a menorah lighting at the state house in Concord.
McDonald said she is concerned about the message it might send Jewish families in Durham if a menorah display is permanently denied.
“Holiday displays that are inclusive of all faiths offer an opportunity to have meaningful dialogue about celebrating differences, about tolerance and about community diversity at a time of year when people gather to spread good will,” McDonald said.
McDonald said she hopes town leaders in Durham will reach out to Manchester, Bethlehem and Concord officials to learn more about how these collaborations can be carried out successfully.
On Wednesday, Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig maintained that the decision to deny the request for a menorah was based on vandalism and safety concerns.
“There is no issue of anti-semitism related to this matter in any way, shape or form, nor is there a fear of anti-Semitism,” Selig said. “As a college town, we have a fairly unique clientele in downtown Durham between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.”
Selig said in conversations leading up to the denial of the center’s request, he spoke with Police Chief David Kurz, who recalled that one year the holiday tree was cut down.
“For this reason, public infrastructure downtown is hardened and fastened to the ground securely,” Selig said. The holiday tree in Durham is planted in Memorial Park.
Selig said they have explained to Slavaticki that the town does not allow the display of any overtly religious symbols on town property.
Many people have questioned what the law is on allowing religious symbols on public land and whether or not a holiday tree is, in fact, a representation of the Christian faith since this issue came to light.
Professor Jordan Budd works for the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord. He says that over the past few decades, the courts have been more open to the idea of allowing religious displays on public land during the holiday season as long as officials do not favor or discriminate against any one faith.
Typically, these religious symbols are mixed in with other nonreligious symbols to give balance to the message, Budd said.
“There’s significant ambiguity in exactly where the lines are drawn. Some courts have signed off on quite obvious religious displays as long as there is some non-religious imagery included,” Budd said of what city and town officials can allow.
Budd said when it comes to holiday trees, people have argued that they are representative of Christmas and Christianity, but the courts have generally found it is permissible for a city or town to put them up on public land because they are not considered religious symbols under the law.
Selig has said officials in the town of Durham have committed to having a discussion about what will happen in Memorial Park next year, but they are leaning toward a suggestion from the parks and recreation department to have a winter carnival theme which does not include a holiday tree or any religious symbols.