LtE: Menorah on the Town Common

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Dear Editor,

Please let me share how I felt at the Select Board (SB) Meeting on Nov. 21st. I invite anyone interested to watch this meeting and put themselves in my shoes and potentially the shoes of other people who are Jewish in town. Here is the LINK.   

The mob scene, complete with heckling, interruptions, and flag waving, felt simultaneously frightening and disheartening. It harkened back to the 1930s in Europe and before when pogroms, Nazis, and mobs attacked the Jews, blaming us for society’s ills. It has been frightening thinking that a seed of misinformation could trigger such a hateful response in Reading in 2022 – and from friends! But the reality is that anti-Semitism is on the rise. For me, it harkened back to Elie Wiesel’s “Eyes at the Window” – his description of the success of the Nazi propaganda, which justified neighbors and friends watching while their Jewish friends were marched to their deaths by firing squads and in concentration camps. 

Do I think that the two Select Board Members meant to plant the seed of hate with their association of the Menorah with the “War on Christmas” and “Exclusion.” NO, I don’t. But did they try to calm down the mob at the SB meeting? The answer to that is also NO. Did they encourage the people in the room to stay to listen to the discussion of policy for Seasonal Holiday Displays – NO. In fact, the loud mob all left the meeting when it came time to discuss what policy ought to be put into place to ensure fairness in determining holiday displays for all who live, work and visit Reading.

Let me fill in some gaps with a description of the initial discussion about placing a Menorah on the Town Common at the prior SB meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15th; Menorah discussion starts at 2:02). At that meeting, the SB voted unanimously to support a motion that read: “Move to approve placing a menorah on the Town Common.” During the discussion, the suggestion was made to also have a Christmas Tree. That consideration was quickly translated into the scheduling of a subsequent special meeting.   It was unfortunate that during this initial meeting, a SB Member associated the placement of the Menorah with the “War Against Christmas.”  Once planted, this seed seemed to take root.  There was no statement that there couldn’t be a Christmas Tree, just that research needed to be done and that it should be discussed at a future meeting. This meeting was scheduled as soon as it was legal to do so – within a week! This was a dangerous seed that festered on social media and manifested itself in the heckling and disrespect at the Nov. 21st meeting. 

At the Nov. 21st S.B. meeting, friends turned their backs on me as I entered the Select Board Room and said nothing as the crowd persisted in heckling and rudely interrupting, despite the Chair’s call for order. A woman waved a large flag with a cross on it, while another recorded the meeting, complete with her litany of name-calling. Two board members claimed that they want inclusion but insist that adding a menorah is exclusive. They did not speak out to advise their followers to be respectful. 

I love the season and always drove my children around to see the Christmas Lights on homes and Town Commons. I have celebrated Christmas with many of the people in that room. I have absolutely nothing against a Christmas Tree on the Common to join the many other manifestations of Christmas in our town. The wreaths and holly on our town buildings and lampposts are beautiful. It is fun to watch Santa lighting the lights adorning trees on our Common, to ride hayrides to the North Pole, and to eat Christmas Cookies at adjacent churches. I have always enjoyed singing Christmas Carols and enjoy them even more now that Reading’s fabulous music teachers have added music from many different cultures and faiths. The reality is that Christmas decorations are everywhere, and not everyone feels included. The point of the motion presented at both of the Select Board Meetings was to help more people feel included. So many people of different faiths have emailed and approached me to say that adding a menorah is doing exactly that.

It is important to note that including a menorah in the town’s holiday celebrations had actually happened decades ago when a Jewish Reading resident and Select Board Member, Marvin Rosenthal, raised the funds for the lights on the Common. Bobbi Botticelli gave some history to the holiday lights in her Letter to the Editor, published in the Chronicle and Reading Post on Dec. 9, 2020 ( ). Ms. Botticelli calls them Christmas Lights in her article. Part of the original agreement was for a Menorah to be included in the town’s celebration. This menorah lit a Town Hall window for many years, until the staff member who volunteered to light it, no longer worked for Reading. As of this year, a new menorah now sits in its place in the Select Board Room window.

Likewise, the renewed request to put a menorah on the Town Common was not a new one. This had been proposed repeatedly since at least 2013, when Chanukah and Thanksgiving overlapped. At that time, a menorah was not allowed to be lit alongside Santa during the holiday lighting of the Common Trees, because only “secular” symbols were allowed. This begged a discussion, given the omnipresent symbols of Santa, Christmas Carols, and Wreaths at our town celebration. That year, our children had to delay lighting their Chanukah Menorah at sundown in order to sing Christmas Carols on the Common, as required by their high school choral and band memberships.

The addition of the special SB meeting on Monday, November 21st, addressed both establishing a long-term policy for deciding on “Winter/Holiday Season Display to Celebrate Town’s Diversity on Town Common, including Menorah and Christmas tree” and the more immediate motion: “Move to direct the town manager to cause a Menorah and a Christmas Tree to be placed on the Town Common to demonstrate the Select Board’s and the Town of Reading’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the community and to place a sign near those items stating that these items are placed here to reflect the Town’s strong commitment to these purposes.”  

The crowd, however, seemed less interested in finding solutions than expressing their anger at those whom they perceived to be attacking Christmas. 

Right now, I am both disturbed by and ashamed of the response of these neighbors and fellow Reading Residents. But I am buoyed by the outpouring of understanding and support from both strangers and friends. I have faith that we can come together as a town – as the loving community that Reading is – to find common ground. Please join me on this journey. Together we can make a difference!

Linda Snow Dockser
Beaver Road

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