The small town where I live has had a rocky few years. A police officer sued the town alleging racism. That revealed the poster of Hitler in another officer's locker. Then came allegations of misconduct. The town formed a Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity committee -- and then five out of six people of color on that committee resigned. There were threatening emails. Town Facebook groups exploded.
Last year, town clergy together hosted a series of interfaith Listening Circles. We talked about faith and race and feeling welcome (or not) and what we want our town to be. The Hitler poster and police misconduct impacted some of us. Accusations of racism impacted some of us. Racism impacted some of us. What might it look like to pursue both justice and reconciliation? What would that ask of us?
What does it mean to feel that we "belong" here, if we moved here from somewhere else -- or if we didn't? How can we collectively avoid the zero-sum notion that if our town becomes more welcoming to newcomers and minorities, it necessarily becomes less welcoming to the people who grew up here? While we're at it, who defines what is and isn't "welcoming"? What do we owe to each other?
I learned in those conversations that some Jews feel simultaneously invisible and unwelcome here. It's a double-edged sword: not sure people know we're here, and also not sure we'd be welcome if people did know we're here. The experience of being a religious minority isn't new. But it takes on a different valance in a time of rising antisemitism, and these last few years have surely been that.
Against all of these backdrops, members of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce reached out. They'd been urged to expand the diversity of celebrations encompassed in the Town's December holiday activities. Would a Town menorah be meaningful? Conversations ensued. Fundraising ensued. Fast-forward to where we are now: last night my son and I helped to dedicate the new Town menorah.
The Town menorah stands on the lawn of the big downtown Inn, visible all the way up Spring Street. (If you're imagining a town like Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, you're not far off.) We live in a society shaped by Christian practices and assumptions. Christmas is in the music, the advertisements, the red and green everything. For some of us, simply seeing a Jewish tradition in public is a balm.
Representation matters -- just ask any kid who finally sees a character like them in a book or on TV and feels a wash of inchoate relief at that sense of validation. Having a big visible symbol of Chanukah can evoke a similar feeling. For me the Town menorah is a lovely expression of diversity and pluralism. (I'd love to see more cultures and traditions uplifted. Next year, a Town iftar, perhaps?)
I've never felt invisible or unwelcome here as a Jew... but knowing that some of those whom I serve have felt that way, I hope the Town menorah lighting did a little bit to dispel that. "I never thought I'd see this happen in Williamstown," one congregant marveled to me after we blessed and kindled lights and sang songs. "I didn't think it would make such a difference, after living here all these years."