Williamsburg festival says it won’t hold a menorah lighting due to Israel-Hamas war

by | Dec 7, 2023 | Trending News

Andrew Lapin
(JTA) – When the director of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Williamsburg, Virginia, pitched a local arts and culture festival last month on the idea of holding a public menorah lighting to celebrate Hanukkah, he thought it made sense.

“We look to bring people together with Jewish pride and unity,” Rabbi Mendy Heber, of Chabad of Williamsburg, says. Likewise, Second Sundays, a monthly cultural festival held in historic Colonial Williamsburg that features artisans and musical performances, also has a mission to bring about “peace for all humans everywhere.”

So, it seemed to Heber a natural fit to hold the menorah lighting as part of the Second Sunday, on Dec. 10, the fourth night of Hanukkah. In fact, Chabad of Williamsburg already had a months-long relationship with the festival, having sold challah as a vendor at prior installments.

And like the thousands of other Chabad outposts around the world, public menorah lightings are a big part of Heber’s mission; the Chabad Hasidic movement claimed to have staged 15,000 such events worldwide in 2021. When Heber proposed the lighting, he says, he and Second Sundays founder Susan Vermillion had a series of “positive communications” about the event.

Instead, the planned celebration turned into a debacle when Second Sundays leadership decided, on Nov. 16, not to hold the menorah lighting because they feared it would be seen as an endorsement of Israel during its war with Hamas in Gaza. Organizers then suggested that the lighting could go forward only if they could get an Islamic group to participate, or if they could hold it under a banner calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“This hurt,” Heber says. “It was a kick in the gut, not just for the Jewish community here, not just for Jews throughout the United States, but for all decent people who believe in the American dream.”

Since the war began nearly two months ago, a range of American institutions have seen cancellations, protests, and heightened rhetoric related to the debate over Israel and Hamas. But the Williamsburg incident is an example of how expressions of Judaism that are unrelated to Israel — from synagogues to kosher restaurants and now, Hanukkah celebrations — are being implicated in the debate over the war.

Last month a Maine town removed a Star of David from its holiday lights display after a local resident complained it was taking sides in the war, though officials insisted to JTA that the complaint was unrelated to the removal.

And officials in the Canadian city of Moncton, behind closed doors, decided not to display a menorah outside of City Hall this year; citing a separation of church and state, though the local Jewish communal group called it “an indicator of discrimination” given that the town will still display a Christmas tree and other Christmas lights. The decision was reversed at a city council meeting following outcry, and the mayor issued an apology “if our actions showed a lack of support toward any members of our community.”

Unlike in those two incidents, it is clear that Israel was a direct factor in organizers’ decision not to hold the menorah lighting in Williamsburg. Vermillion, a dental hygienist who founded and oversees Second Sundays through her nonprofit LoveLight Placemaking, told Heber directly that she and her board did not want to be perceived as taking sides in the conflict.

In a series of messages, portions of which were read to JTA and whose exact wording was confirmed by Heber and another local rabbi who received them, Vermillion wrote that the event wouldn’t happen “unless we can get an Islamic group to participate at essentially the same time,” adding, “We don’t want to make it seem we’re choosing a side.”

Vermillion went on to state that she wanted to avoid “letting a specific church or religion seeming to be supported” by her organization, and that “timing isn’t good or appropriate at this time.”

Heber insisted the event would have nothing to do with Israel or Zionism (Chabad is not an explicitly Zionist movement, though many of its adherents are Zionist and many of its chapters host pro-Israel programming) and would consist only of a few prayers. Vermillion wrote back, “Our board members said they’d be OK with proceeding if you do it under a ceasefire banner. Bombing and killing thousands of people isn’t spreading love and light, and we aren’t going to openly support any religious/cultural holidays/celebrations.”

“I’m really not sure why you guys are making it such a big deal,” Vermillion continued. “This is my event. My nonprofit. You guys are more than welcome to do whatever you want to do on your own.”

After Vermillion informed Heber that the menorah lighting would not move forward, the rabbi looped in the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula, a local communal organization that provides services to around 2,000 Jews between the communities of Williamsburg, Newport News, and Hampton. (Williamsburg has only one Jewish congregation, apart from the Chabad and a Hillel at the College of William & Mary.)

Vermillion did not respond to subsequent attempts by UJCVP to arrange a sit-down, leading the organization to make good on a threat that it would go public with the exchange on Sunday, Dec. 5. In a statement, UJCVP asserted that it “is shocked and alarmed” by LoveLight Placemaking’s decision.

“We should be very clear: it is antisemitic to hold Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s policies and actions, and to require a political litmus test for Jews’ participation in community events that have nothing to do with Israel,” the statement read.In text messages with JTA, Vermillion said, “It’s sad that the most inclusive organization and event in Williamsburg is being targeted for trying to stay neutral.”

In Vermillion’s telling, the menorah lighting “was proposed but was not consistent with the purpose of this non-religious, community art and music festival, and the proposal was denied.”

She continued, “It feels very wrong to label anyone associated with this as an antisemite when the rejection of this religious programming was entirely consistent with our decision to keep our gathering focused on music and art, rather than religious ceremonies.” She added that she has received “some threats” over the matter and would be reporting them to the local police.

Speaking to other media outlets, Vermillion seemed to reaffirm that she and the board viewed a menorah lighting as akin to making a political statement on Israel. In an interview with a local newspaper, Vermillion said that the event “seemed very inappropriate” given the situation in Gaza, and added, “The concern is of folks feeling like we are siding with a group over the other.”

Videos for the event, posted to the Second Sundays Facebook page, include montages of Christmas tree ornaments, wreaths, and other Christmas-related paraphernalia, and are set to the songs Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Deck the Halls.

“It came across to me as ignorant, in the most literal sense of the word: just not understanding what this was about,” Rabbi David Katz, who leads Temple Beth El in Williamsburg, says.

Katz, whose unaffiliated congregation uses a Reconstructionist prayer book, was not involved in Heber’s efforts to hold the menorah lighting — and was out of town for a bar mitzvah as the weekend’s controversy was unfolding.

As a member of UJCVP, he read and relayed the text and email exchanges to JTA and says that, in a small community with few Jews, an incident like this can travel and is most likely born out of “a lack of knowing, of being connected to Jews.”

“This form of underlying antisemitism is in so many places where a lot of us wouldn’t expect,” Katz says. “If you want to protest the IDF, that’s not the same thing as protesting Jews lighting the menorah.”

Heber, who has been in Williamsburg for two years, agrees. “Giving American Jews a political litmus test is just discriminatory, ugly, and un-American,” he said. “And doing it with Hanukkah, which symbolizes liberty, is just ironic, especially during these times when Jews are facing tremendous amounts of antisemitism.”

Heber says he has been in communication with the Virginia Attorney General’s office and its antisemitism task force. This summer the state commissioned the task force, unique among state attorneys general offices, which includes representatives of groups including the Anti-Defamation League, regional Federations, and Hillel International. The task force’s establishment followed a lengthy report on antisemitism in the state commissioned by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin last year.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment. Youngkin condemned the festival’s actions on X, writing, “Singling out the Jewish community by canceling this Hanukkah celebration is absurd and antisemitic.”

Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO Amy Spitalnick, who is working with UJCVP on its response to the incident, says it was “such a clear-cut example of antisemitism.”

“We were horrified by the festival’s decision to cancel the menorah lighting — so clearly seeking to collectively blame the Jewish people for Israel’s actions and create political litmus tests for events that have nothing to do with Israel,” she told JTA in a text message.

Another public menorah lighting still planned to take place, as the Chabad also planned to hold one Thursday, Dec. 7 on the William & Mary campus. Scheduled before the Second Sundays controversy and primarily intended for Jewish students, Heber says that lighting would become a much larger communal event. He has also received words of sympathy from some non-Jews who have said will light menorahs in their own windows in solidarity.

“We’re going to make this Hanukkah bigger and brighter than ever,” he says. “That is how we respond to darkness.”