While he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders defended Chabad of Vermont’s public menorah, one of the first politicians in the country to do so. He later declared the Rebbe’s birthday, Yud aleph Nissan, as Education Day, which the Rebbe personally thanked him for in a letter.
While large Public Chabad-Lubavitch Chanukah Menorahs are very much a part of the fabric of American life today, gaining permission to display the menorahs on public property was not without hurdles. Indeed, almost from the inception of the public menorah by enterprising Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, opponents of the effort brought their grievances to the courthouse, claiming the menorahs violated the separation of church and state. Defenders countered that the public display was protected as a matter of freedom of speech and freedom to practice one’s religion.
Researching the menorah court cases that colored much of the 1980s and early 1990s (which culminated, in part, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision allowing the display of menorahs in Allegheny County v. American Civil Liberties Union), Chabad.org Associate Editor Dovid Margolin searched the archives of Chabad-Lubavitch of Vermont for information pertaining to the controversy and subsequent court case that surrounded Burlington, Vermont’s public menorah. His research led him to the University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library, and subsequently to interviewing people who remembered the case.
While so doing, Margolin stumbled across a number of facts that might be of wider public interest just now.
The research sheds new light on Bernie Sanders’ pivotal role, as mayor of Burlington from 1981-1989, in defending Chabad’s menorah, which in turn garnered an extraordinary amount of media and advocacy attention to the menorah cause, helping to catapult the public menorah and the Chanukah holiday to great prominence in the U.S.A. and even abroad. It can thus be said that Mr. Bernie Sanders, through his principled stand as mayor of Burlington, played a significant role in bringing the Chanukah holiday to the masses.
Chabad.org’s Margolin’s research unearthed some additional interesting facts about Sanders and his Judaism which have not yet been reported. We share that, too, below.
Below is the information more-or-less in chronological form, along with some interview notes and additional explanatory information.
Needless to say, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement does not endorse any political candidate, and this and any other information Chabad.org publicizes is for informational purposes.
1. Bernie Sanders’ Important and Principled Role in Popularizing Chanukah Observance
In a nutshell:
- As mayor of Burlington, Vt., Bernie Sanders publicly inaugurated the Chabad-Lubavitch Public Menorah at Burlington’s City Hall.
- Sanders recited the blessings and lit the Menorah’s candles at Burlington’s first-ever public Chanukah Menorah lighting.
- Defying significant pressure from political peers, Sanders strongly supported the Chabad-Lubavitch Public Menorah and directed his administration to defend it in court.
- The early and strong support from the Sanders administration played a significant role in the now widespread phenomenon of public Chanukah Menorah celebrations countrywide.
With its small Jewish population, Vermont is historically not used to much public Jewish expression. In December of 1982 the Burlington Free Press ran an opinion piece titled: Attempting to Celebrate Hanukkah Always Seems Difficult in Vermont.
In the winter of 1983 Rabbi Yitzchak and Zeesy Raskin were appointed as the new Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to Vermont, to help support and strengthen Jewish awareness throughout the rural state. One of the first actions the newly-minted emissaries took (at the time the Raskins still did not have a home in Burlington and Rabbi Raskin was searching for an apartment for his young family), was to approach Mayor Sanders’ office and request permission to light a large 8-foot menorah on the steps of City Hall as part of the worldwide public mitzvah campaign spearheaded and inspired by theLubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Rabbi Raskin then invited Mayor Sanders to light the menorah.
Sanders gladly accepted their invitation and on December 1, 1983, in front of a crowd of about 35 Jewish students from the University of Vermont, he came out to the steps of City Hall, donned a kippah, flawlessly read the blessings aloud, and lit two candles, corresponding to the second night of Chanukah.
Sanders’ historic inauguration of the City Hall menorah inspired an annual tradition, and in 1986 Rabbi Raskin sought permission to allow the menorah to be erected in City Hall Park during all eight days of Chanukah. He also asked for permission to replace his aging 8-footer with a new sixteen foot version.
Litigation and Pressure
The Sanders administration welcomed these requests, and granted full permission.
Almost immediately the ACLU complained to the city, claiming that a menorah in a public space violated federal laws of the separation of church and state.
Sanders asked City Attorney Joseph McNeil to review the issue.
On Dec. 5, 1986, McNeil responded to Sanders, attaching a legal opinion written by attorney Art Cernosia stating the city’s position that Chabad was fully in its rights to erect a menorah:
“… Based on the Second Circuit case, it is my opinion that there is no legal bar for the City of Burlington to allow a menorot [sic] to be erected in the City’s park. I would recommend that the City require a prominent disclaimer sign to be posted by the display.”
The now-taller menorah stood in City Hall Park for the duration of Chanukah.
In 1987 the ACLU and local activists threatened to file suit against the City of Burlington if they again allowed the menorah to be erected on city property. The controversy quickly went from being a Vermont case covered by local papers to a widely-reported national news story. One New York Times story quotes extensively from a news conference held by City Attorney McNeill and Assistant City Attorney John Franco, in which they reiterated the Sanders administration’s opinion that “City Hall Park is a public-forum location where the expression of political and religious viewpoints is not only tolerated but encouraged.”
The Times further quotes McNeil about the growing tussle:
“[McNeil] said a number of city agencies had received calls about the menorah, some in support, some in opposition and “some unfortunate calls suggesting that, because the Governor [Madeleine Kunin] and the Mayor [Sanders] are both Jewish, we might be more inclined to allow a menorah than a creche.
“’It is not because the Governor and the Mayor are Jewish that the menorah is in the park,’ Mr. McNeil said.”
Governor Madeleine Kunin actually disagreed with Mayor Sanders about the menorah’s permissibility but despite her disagreement, and the vociferous opposition of many of Sanders’ friends and political supporters, the mayor and his administration were steadfast in their determination to allow the religious expression in the public sphere.
It is difficult to overstate how closely allied the ACLU and Bernie Sanders were on the vast majority of social issues. Yet when activists—with the assistance of the ACLU—finally did file suit against the city in June of 1988, Sanders and his administration chose to vigorously defend their position in court.
Reliable supporters of Bernie Sanders lined up to express their dissatisfaction. Rev. Paul Bortz exhorted Sanders to drop the case and “get out of this.” Wrote Bortz:
“Come on Mayor Sanders, let’s drop the idea of any religious symbol being displayed on any government property. The whole idea is an extraordinary waste waste [sic] of taxpayers money. Or are you billing Lubavitch of Vermont for legal fees?
“Let’s get on with other, more vital, issues such as the legal rights of the homeless, and poor and housing and discrimination, areas where the Sanders administration has a good record.”
On Dec. 8, 1988, just before Chanukah, U.S. District Judge Franklin S. Billings Jr. issued a particularly strong ruling in support of the Burlington menorah, a story closely reported by The Times (and distributed around the country by its now-defunct wire service), and many other national outlets.
The ruling was overturned a year later by the Second Court of Appeals, which claimed, in part, that since the menorah stood in the park alone (i.e., without any symbols of other religions, as was the case in Allegheny County v. ACLU, in which the Supreme Court ruled the public display of a menorah was constitutional), it was therefore in violation of the Establishment Clause.
In subsequent years, Chabad’s Raskin placed the menorah in Waterfront Park (also government property, but not directly in front of City Hall, which mollified the Appeals Court’s reasoning that a menorah with City Hall in the background was a de facto endorsement of a particular religion by the municipality). Today, the menorah goes up in the heart of Burlington on a central patch on the campus of the University of Vermont.
But the ongoing publicity of the case, due in large measure to Mayor Sanders’ strong support, served a positive role in Chabad’s efforts to publicize the Chanukah message and bring more public awareness of the holiday and its message of religious freedom.
More First-Hand Info Regarding Bernie Sanders’ Stance on the Chabad Menorah:
Richard Sugarman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Vermont who has known Sanders for nearly five decades (the two were roommates for a time in Burlington, and it was Sugarman who encouraged Sanders to successfully run for mayor in 1981. Sanders appointed Sugarman his unpaid “Commissioner of Reality” following that election) recalls their conversations regarding the menorah case:
“When Bernie and I discussed the menorah issue, it was a religious freedom case. We discussed the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory]’s opinion. It resonated with him. It wasn’t about fighting other holidays; it was about making a religious freedom argument.”
(NOTE: The Rebbe’s 1980 public letter “To all Participants in the Public Lighting of the Menorah in the U.S.A.”)
Speaking about the Sanders administration’s principled position even in the face of strong opposition by its political allies, then-Assistant City Attorney John Franco (who served as a legislative assistant to Sanders after he was elected to Congress in 1991) recalls the Sanders administration position:
“I cannot be emphatic enough in expressing how much Lubavitch was in its rights to put up a menorah. To us it was never even a question; it was clearly a First Amendment case and we were going to fight for their rights to do so. It was never a consideration not to.”
2. How Did Bernie Sanders Celebrate His Reelection as Mayor?
Sanders was first elected mayor by ten votes, and his shocked opponents in both political parties (Sanders was an independent until recently) said his election was a fluke and that he was a one-term mayor. However, Sanders won reelection in 1983, and then again in 1985, each time by growing margins. Professor Sugarman (see above) helped Sanders celebrate his 1985 reelection by bringing him to Chabad’s Purim party two days after the election, where he joined in the celebration of the miracle.
3. Learning from and Honoring the Rebbe
With the newly widespread use of cable and satellite television in the 1980s, some of the Lubavitcher Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M.Schneerson, of righteous memory]’s farbrengens (public gatherings) were broadcast live via satellite by the newly-formed Jewish Educational Media (JEM). During hisfarbrengens the Rebbe would teach Torah to thousands of for many hours on end, and often expound on the Torah’s universal lessons for society at large and its bearing on contemporary world events. JEM’s broadcast of thefarbrengens brought the Rebbe’s teachings, along with his unique delivery and style, to millions of people nationwide.
Bernie Sanders was one of those who enjoyed watching the Rebbe on cable television, and, in between those viewings and conversations he had with his friend and advisor Sugarman, Sanders was taken by the Rebbe’s views on education, which the Rebbe saw as ”a cornerstone… of humanity” and one of “the Nation’s top priorities.”
(Many other politicians and community leaders were similarly influenced by the Rebbe’s televised farbrengens, including the late former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo.
Additionally, Sanders joined the national “Education Day” proclaimed annually on the date of the Rebbe’s Jewish calendric birthdate (which varies each year on the regular secular calendar), and proclaimed Education Day in Burlington in honor of the Rebbe’s 81st birthday in 1983 and 83rd birthday in 1985.
Note in Sanders’ 1985 proclamation
A) The unusual citation of the Hebrew date of the Rebbe’s birthday as “Yud-Alef Nissan,” which is the Hebrew for the 11th of month of Nissan.
B) The uniquely “Sander-esque” language and style he uses in honoring the Rebbe.
C) Reference to Maimonides’ 850-year anniversary, which was also something he had learned from the Rebbe’s teachings:
Whereas, The Lubavitcher Rebbe has democratized education; By, Laboring tirelessly to establish educational institutions for the elderly, for women, for children; and Whereas, He has sought out the materially oppressed and disadvantaged, thereby effecting their enfranchisement through education; and By, Stressing the universal implications of education as a source of continuous creativity through which the human condition is perfected; and Whereas, Especially, in this same week marking the 850th birthday of Maimonides, binding the principle of reason to human liberation…”
Sanders then sent copies of his proclamations to the Rebbe in Brooklyn.
In a brief 1983 letter (above) to Sanders the Rebbe thanks him for the honor, immediately refocuses attention to the primary issue at hand, education, and alludes to Sanders’ future wider impact on the entire state:
“I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness in designating this Education Day in honor of my birthday. I trust that your action will stimulate greater awareness of the vital importance of education, not only among all your worthy citizens, but also in the State of Vermont.
“With prayerful wishes for success in your important and responsible position, for the prosperity for all your citizens, both materially and spiritually.”
Additional background from Professor Sugarman:
“Sanders appreciated the fact that the day honoring the Rebbe’s birthday was designated as ‘Education Day,’ and moved that a Chassidic leader like the Rebbe concerned himself ‘not only with the spiritual condition of humanity, but their material condition as well.’”
When the Rebbe’s response arrived at the Mayor’s Office in City Hall, Sanders called Sugarman:
“I remember the day Bernard called. He says, ‘I got a letter you might be interested in seeing.’ I went over there and read it, and then I asked if he minded if I keep the original letter. I was surprised when he told me ‘No, this letter is for me, I want to keep it.’”