MONTREAL — Congregation Beth-El has protested the Town of Mount Royal’s decision to remove a menorah and a nativity scene from outside the town hall, while maintaining a Christmas tree.
In a Dec. 6 letter to Mayor Philippe Roy, Rabbi Allan Langner, Beth-El’s rabbi emeritus, said the lighting of the menorah during Chanukah was enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews alike for many years.
The six-member council of the town of 19,000 unanimously decided to limit decorations to the tree after a group of Muslim residents reportedly asked town officials if Islamic symbols could be added to the holiday display.
According to the 2001 Canadian census, 12 per cent of TMR residents were Jewish and 5.5 per cent Muslim.
Rabbi Langner, who has served Beth-El since 1959, recalled that it was during the tenure of Mayor Reginald Dawson more than 40 years ago that the menorah was first erected outside the town hall, in co-operation with Beth-El, the only synagogue in TMR.
“Mayor Dawson initiated the ceremony together with the town council of that day, none of whom was Jewish. It was done as a gesture of goodwill toward the Jewish community, and was widely appreciated,” Rabbi Langner wrote. The ceremony included the reciting of blessings and singing Chanukah songs.
He recalled that representatives of Christian churches attended the lighting. “Indeed, there were those even who were neither Jewish nor Christian… It was a time for members of the diverse communities of TMR to come together.”
Rabbi Langner argues that, although the Chanukah menorah may be viewed as a religious symbol, the holiday is “primarily a celebration of an historic event…
“The menorah symbolizes a beacon of light for those who are committed to freedom and peace, and the hope that they will one day attain it.”
The town has given its menorah to Beth-El.
However, Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Côte St. Luc’s Congregation Beth Israel-Beth Aaron said TMR is “absolutely correct” in removing religious symbols from the seat of muncipal government.
“Anyone who says the menorah is not a religious symbol is wrong, because its lighting involves the reciting of prayers,” said Rabbi Poupko, a member of the local executive of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
“This is just common sense in how to function in a pluralistic society and in sync with countless court rulings around North America.”
The nativity is also clearly religious, to Rabbi Poupko’s mind, because it depicts the birth of Jesus.
He said trees and lights are not generally perceived as religious symbols by society today, and he personally has no objection to their presence on civic property and, in fact, enjoys the festive lights.
If municipalities or other civic institutions want to mark the Chanukah season in a non-religious way, they could decorate with dreidels or pictures of latkes, he suggested.
A week earlier, Rabbi Poupko spoke out against a directive from the management of the federal Complexe Guy Favreau, which houses Service Canada, banning Christmas decorations of any kind.
That memo was overturned by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who confirmed that holiday decorations are permitted inside federal buildings.
Like Rabbi Langer, Rabbi Moishe Krasnanski, director of Chabad of the Town, also objects to the banishment of the menorah.
“I think this is a terrible thing for the Jewish community and every community. The way to respond to the Muslims who want to have their symbol is not to wipe out other peoples’. This is very wrong.”
The menorah carries a universal message of light over darkness, or good over evil, he said.
“We have freedom of religion and expression in this country. The country should be upholding religion, not taking it away.”
Chabad was not involved with the menorah lighting in TMR, but it does put up menorahs around the Montreal area and Laurentians.
“In fact, there are thousands of menorahs from Chabad around the world – in front of the White House, the Eiffel Tower – and there has been no issue. Nor should there be,” Rabbi Krasnanski said.
B’nai Brith Canada-Quebec called upon the TMR council to reverse its decision, saying the removal of the menorah and nativity scene limits the freedom of religious expression.
At the same time, the organization applauded the Canadian government for overruling the directive by Service Canada in Quebec forbidding Christmas decorations.