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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

621 Blessed are You Adonai, who has kept us, sustained us and brought us to this happy time!

Day 621 Friday, November 26, 2021

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this happy time!

The next few days are very spiritually significant, and yet they are symbolized by little candles. Sunday is the traditional beginning of the Christian year — the first Sunday of Advent. We light the first candle on the Advent wreath. Sunday evening is the start of the Jewish celebration of Chanukah and it begins by lighting the first of eight candles. These two events do not often happen close together but this year it seems appropriate.

Advent is known by most people who had a Christian upbringing as the time leading up to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The word itself means “arrival.” Chanukah is not so well known to those who did not experience a Jewish legacy.

Chanukah began with an ancient miracle concerning olive oil. Here at Starcross we have been harvesting olives and processing olive oil for the past few weeks, and naturally we feel a little connected to the Chanukah story. Here is what I wrote about that miracle in A Winter Walk (2006: The Crossroad Publishing Co.):

In 165 BCE, a Jewish army drove out an oppressor and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem. They cleaned it and removed all foreign symbols. When the time came to light the perpetual flame, as part of the rededication to Divine worship, they found only enough oil to last one day. With faith, they lit the lamp anyway, and it burned for eight days – until new oil became available. In modern times, tiny candles on menorahs flicker in windows and giant gas flames shoot up from eight pipes in the city square each winter reminding us to rededicate the sacred space within each of us.

Thus begins a tale that takes us to Billings, Montana in 1993. Some of you may know the story but many don’t or have forgotten

Billings is the state’s largest city with a population of about 100,000. In the autumn of 1992 hate filled flyers appeared in mailboxes, on windshields, and inserted in newspapers. They announced a campaign to make Montana a “White Aryan Homeland.” The Ku Klux Klan and other hate organizations made their presence known. They targeted Jewish, Latinx, Indigenous, Black, LGBTQ, and disabled people. Billings is a conservative city politically but it is also a community where people recognize and greet most people they meet. One person described it as a place where most folks drive pickups, wear jeans, and go to a Christian church on Sundays . Minorities represent only about 7% of the population. Recently, over 60% cast their votes for the former president. An ideal place to sow seeds of hatred. Or was it?

Brian and Tammy Schnitzer and their two young children were one of the few Jewish families living in Billings. Brian was an emergency room physician and Tammy was an activist in human rights. On December 2, 1993 they put a menorah in their window to celebrate the beginning of Chanukah. It was a quiet evening when a stranger crept across the lawn and hurled a cinderblock through the window of five-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s bedroom.

Fortunately Isaac and his two-year-old sister Rachel were in the living room at the time. Brian called the police. Tammy remembers sitting in a rocking chair waiting for them to arrive. I felt so cold. But it wasn't the winter air coming through the broken window. It was my sense of being so helpless. It was my fear of what would come next.

Some Christian neighbors decided that they would put up menorahs in support of the Schnitzer family. Others felt that there had been so many hate crimes lately that there was a danger in doing that. When asked about the risk, police chief Wayne Inman told callers, Yes there is a risk. But there is a greater risk in not doing it.

The Billings Gazette printed a full-page menorah in the newspaper after the crime, and soon nearly 10,000 homes across the city proudly displayed these sacred candles in their front windows. Tammy Schnitzer, the mother of the boy whose room was attacked, remembers her son’s surprise about the suddenly high number of Jewish people in their town.

“No, they are all different religions,” she explained to him. “But they’re here to let you know that there are 10,000 arms wrapping themselves around you saying it’s safe.”

Soon 6,000 homes and buildings had menorahs in the windows. Yes, there was retaliation. Windows in the Methodist church and the Catholic school were broken. Cars outside of homes displaying menorahs were vandalized. With each act of hate, more menorahs appeared in windows. When Margaret MacDonald heard about what happened to the Schnitzer family she tried to imagine telling her young children that they could not have the Christmas tree or hang a wreath on the door. She spoke for many people in Billings when she said,

When we put a menorah in the window we are showing that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.

Then the other part of the miracle unfolded. Facing a united community the Ku Klux Klan backed off, the acts of vandalism and hatred disappeared, there were no more anonymous phone calls.

In Billings menorahs still appear in many windows. PBS has produced a documentary on those Christmas menorahs in their Not In Our Town special. Janice Cohn wrote a powerful narrative in her book The Christmas Menorahs. The miraculous threads that tie hearts together at this special season occur in millions of homes, including my own, when the first candle is lit on the first night of Chanukah each year.

Now before we leave Chanukah let us hop from Billings to Starcross. With the help of a lot of friends we have just finished the olive harvest. The trees were loaded with olives, the harvesting crew was magnificent, Sister Julie and Lance pressed a fantastic oil. And it just so happens that the traditional food eaten on the first night of Chanukah is latkes — a potato pancake made with olive oil to further symbolize the miracle of the Chanukah event. Click the link below for the recipe my daughter, Chef Holly, uses and serves with applesauce.

On the first night of Chanukah the Shehecheyanu blessing for happy occasions is used and it seems an appropriate way of ending this Reflection:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this happy time!

Please watch this video: Not In Our Town: Billings, Montana (High Resolution Version)


by Brother Toby

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