Ethan Eisen

A Chanukah Miracle in Billings, Montana

It was a couple weeks before Chanukah in 1992, and the Schnitzer family of Billings, Montana, was already in the holiday spirit.  The Schnitzers, with two small children, had decorated their home and windows for the upcoming celebration with Stars of David, a Menorah, and a sign reading “Happy Chanukah”.  At around 7 pm on December 2nd, an unidentified person threw a cinderblock through the window of the Schnitzer’s 5-year old child.  This incident, which followed other antisemitic acts around the small city of roughly 81,000, outraged local residents.

This type of intimidation is not foreign to Jews, and it actually is centrally tied to the how Jews have celebrated Hanukkah for thousands of years.  According to the Talmud, and as remains the practice in Israel today, the Hanukkah menorah should be lit outside of one’s front door, publicizing the great miracles of the holiday for the world to see.  However, when the Jews were exiled and displaying one’s Jewishness publicly was recognized as a potentially dangerous act, the practice of lighting the menorah was adjusted.  Instead of lighting outdoors, Jews kindled the menorah inside to be seen only by those in the home.  No doubt, the decision to change the common practice in the Diaspora came with great sadness—an act which was meant to publicize God’s miracles was diminished and subdued because of the threat of violence. Hiding the menorah reflected the Jews deteriorating sense of security in their new lands.

In recent generations, Jewish communities around the world have once again adjusted their practice.  Jews have felt protected in many western countries, and the lighting of the menorah reflects this sense of safety.  Instead of lighting in a way that avoids detection, many Jewish celebrants adorn their homes with Chanukah apparel and light their candles in a public-facing window.  In some ways, the kindling of the Chanukah candles is a marker for how Jews are treated in any given society.

So what would the Billings’s community response to this act of antisemitism and intimidation?  A 42-year-old woman named Margaret MacDonald, who worked for the Montana Association of Churches, had an idea.  What if other Billings residents placed menorahs in their own windows in solidarity with the Schnitzers and other Jewish families?  She rallied other members of her church who purchased menorahs to place in their own windows.  Most remarkably, the Billings Gazette, the largest newspaper in town, published a full-page cutout of a menorah for readers to tape on their windows.  It was estimated that somewhere between 5,000-10,000 non-Jewish homes proudly displayed the menorah that year in Billings, Montana.

This year, many Jews find themselves in a situation that was previously almost unimaginable in the United States, Britain, Australia, France, and many other western countries.  After Israel was victim to the horrific terrorist attacks on October 7, and even as many Israeli hostages continue to be tortured by Hamas and their sympathizers in Gaza, Jews across the world are deeply afraid of the angry, antisemitic mobs that are taking over major western cities.  Many Jews are wondering, is it safe to put up Chanukah decorations?  Do I need to hide the fact that Jews live in my home?

Communities have three options.  One option, the “Nothing to see here” approach, is to pretend that there is no problem with antisemitism in their town.  And if any acts of violence and vandalism to Jewish homes, businesses, or institutions occur, it can be attributed to either a random event or one that reflects the general rise in tension in our communities.  It should be obvious that this type of reaction does not increase the feeling of safety for Jews in any community.

The second option, the “We aren’t qualified to take a position” approach, also fails to provide the Jews a sense of safety.  According to reports, this was the choice of organizers of a music and arts festival in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Apparently, the organizers had originally agreed to include a menorah lighting ceremony at their December 10th gathering but cancelled it because it “seemed very inappropriate.” Others involved with the festival asserted that this claim is unfounded; they explain that the lighting was never scheduled because the menorah lighting is not consistent with the general aims of the festival, which they say has never included a religious program.  However, this sanitized explanation seems odd, as one of the organizers also claimed that a menorah lighting led to the “concern [of] folks feeling like we are siding with a group over the other”—this statement suggests that the issue had nothing to do with including a generic religious ceremony as part of the festival, and much more to do with having a religious ceremony specifically identifiable as Jewish.

The third option, the “Billings solidarity” approach, was the one chosen over 30 years ago by the peace-loving people of Billings, Montana, is to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community.  This is the choice for people who believe that Jews in America should be able to live freely as Jews in America.  This is the choice of courage and moral clarity that refuses to be silenced by hateful mobs who use intimidation and violence to justify their antisemitism.  This is the choice for those who believe that Jews on college campuses should be able to attend classes and walk around campus without fearing for their own safety.  This is the choice for people who believe that a Jewish business owner in Philadelphia should not have his restaurant attacked because he serves an Israeli-themed menu.  This is the choice of people who are outraged by the UN Women’s delayed and tempered condemnation of the mass sexual atrocities perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli women and children.  This is the choice of people who do not want to lose the western world to hate, bigotry, and evil.

For the Billings community, what was the result of this solidarity?  Witnesses of the events in Billings offer the following account:

“When it was time for Hanukkah services to be held in the tiny Billings synagogue, dozens and dozens of Christians came to worship with their Jewish neighbors. There was not enough room to accommodate all who came. Many people stood outside the synagogue, ready to protect the worshippers and the synagogue itself.”

A local reverend explained the phenomenon in the following way: “I think what happened with this whole menorah thing is that permission was given for people to be good. People are often told that but in this case we gave them a way to do it.”

As we continue to pray for the immediate release of the hostages who endure torture at the hands of Hamas, for the healing of those injured in body and spirit by the events of the past two months, and for the soldiers who are fighting to protect us from evil, let us also pray that this Chanukah the light of menorahs around the world will not be forced into hiding.  And let us pray that in the spirit of this solidarity, we will see a true miracle, a time of peace and security for Israel and the entire world.

(Thank you to Rabbi Shaul Shkedi, the Rabbi of Chabad of Billings, for sharing this story with me several months ago)

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha, and is the author of the upcoming book "Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life."
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