Politics & Government

Capitol event reveals quiet debate over public menorah lighting

A Jesuit-trained governor, a Latino Assembly speaker and a Jewish state Senate leader celebrate the holiday season. Which one presides over the Capitol’s annual menorah lighting?

This is not the start of a joke, but a question that reflects a quiet controversy within the Jewish community over public observance of Hanukkah.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez was the featured dignitary at Monday’s celebration of Hanukkah, where he wished the crowd a “ hag Hanukkah sameach” – a happy Hanukkah in Hebrew. Then officials flipped a switch on a large electric menorah to acknowledge the sixth night of the eight-day festival that celebrates a Jewish victory in ancient times during a battle for religious freedom.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, attended the Capitol menorah lighting two years ago and sent representatives this year.

But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a practicing Jew whose wife is the cantor at Sacramento’s Congregation B’nai Israel, wasn’t there Monday and has attended very few of the celebrations during his many years in public service.

“He participated a few years ago with Governor Schwarzenegger and he felt uncomfortable with it because he thinks it’s not the appropriate place to have religious symbols, on the Capitol steps,” said Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund.

“He has great respect for his friends in Chabad of Sacramento but he fundamentally believes that religious symbols should not be displayed on the Capitol steps.”

Chabad, an Orthodox branch of Judaism that follows a strict interpretation of the Old Testament, owns the menorah that decorates the west steps of the Capitol and has organized a Hanukkah celebration there for 19 years. Rabbi Mendy Cohen, who leads Chabad of Sacramento, said he brought the celebration to Sacramento when he moved here from Brooklyn, inspired by the teachings of his rabbi.

“He started this campaign that we should bring the lights of Hanukkah out of the dining rooms and bring them into the public to tell the world ... that God is in the world to bring hope and miracles to the people,” Cohen said.

“When I moved to town, that was one of the first things I did.”

Other Jews in Sacramento said they’d rather keep their holiday observance out of the public square.

For many, lighting a menorah on the steps of the Capitol threatens the separation of church and state, said Barry Broad, a lobbyist who is president of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, an umbrella group that is not affiliated with a particular branch of Judaism.

“Hanukkah doesn’t have a secular meaning. It is only a religious holiday. And a lot of Jewish people feel like it should be celebrated privately or in a synagogue but not in a governmental place,” Broad said.

“We’re a little bit uncomfortable with the public display of Christmas or any other religious holiday. We don’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable.”

At the celebration Monday evening, Pérez handed chocolate coins, a traditional Hanukkah treat, to children wearing glasses shaped like dreidels, the spinning top that is a Hanukkah game. Pérez sprinkled his speech with phrases in Hebrew and Yiddish and said the holiday was being celebrated both privately and publicly. The speaker has said he learned his love of Yiddish from his mother, who grew up in a neighborhood where it was spoken.

“In millions of homes across the country, and in public squares and capitol buildings across our country, menorahs will shine brightly,” he said, “as a testament of our deep belief that each day can be better than the last.”

Pérez said the Hebrew blessing over the candles with Rabbi Cohen.

In an interview before the ceremony, Cohen said the courts have determined that the menorah is a symbol of freedom, not a religious symbol.

“I’m very comfortable with it,” he said. “If there’s a Christmas tree, why shouldn’t there be a menorah?”