This year on Chanukah, before Chabad of Santa Monica can light its two 12-foot-tall, propane-fueled menorahs in Palisades Park and on the Third Street Promenade, Rabbi Isaac Levitansky has to procure two pickup trucks to cart the menorahs to and from their spots.
“Normally we set them up and we left them there,” Levitansky, Chabad’s spiritual leader, said of the menorahs, which he said will take “four or five” people to lift. But as a result of a ban passed by Santa Monica City Council last June outlawing any private unattended displays on city-owned property, all menorahs being lit in public spaces will have to be removed each night.
“If you have to deal with legal issues, you deal with them,” Levitansky said in an interview on Dec. 3. “They’ve banned us from having nonattended displays in the park, but if they’re attended, you can have them there. That’s our plan.”
The ban is the result of a years-long controversy, focused not on menorahs, but on the display of a set of 14 life-size dioramas telling the Nativity story. The Nativity scenes, which are sponsored by a consortium of local churches, had been displayed along Palisades Park in Santa Monica since 1953. In 2011, in a lottery conducted by the city, atheist activists won 18 of the 21 available spaces for display in the park, leaving one space for Chabad’s menorah and two for the Nativity scenes.
The atheists used their installations to promote atheism and criticize religion. Anxious to prevent Palisades Park from becoming a space for competing religious and anti-religious displays, the Santa Monica City Council voted last June to remove the exemption that had allowed the wintertime displays in the park.
The group behind the Nativity displays filed a lawsuit against the city in hopes of stopping the change from taking effect, citing the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins dismissed that suit in November.
William J. Becker Jr., the attorney representing the churches behind the Nativity scenes, said his client would appeal the dismissal.
“The government has engaged in an unconstitutional act,” Becker said. “Of course, the only people who care are the Nativity scene people, because the Chabad people have other locations. They should, though, because it’s their First Amendment right that’s being violated, too.”
Levitansky said he had “about 60” other menorahs sited throughout the city on private property. The Nativity scenes will also be displayed on private property this year, Becker said.
It’s not just Chabad’s menorahs that are being affected by the ban. For the past five years, Downtown Santa Monica Inc., the public-private partnership that manages the business assessment district that includes the Third Street Promenade and the streets that surround it, has had a menorah lighting of its own on the promenade.
As a result of the ban, that menorah, an electric candelabra with branches that rise more than 10 feet into the air, will have to be moved on dollies onto the promenade each time it is to be lit. After the ceremony, it will be carted away.
Part of the tradition at the promenade has been to invite local congregations to lead the lighting of the menorah for a night. Mishkon Tephilo, a Conservative synagogue at the border of Santa Monica and Venice, had been responsible for one night in each of the last two years. This year, they’re going as guests of Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav, another Conservative synagogue, which is responsible for lighting on the fourth night of Chanukah, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m.