On a street where every other house was illuminated with Christmas decorations, 5 year old Isaac Schnitzer placed a menorah in his bedroom window. It wasn’t long before a cinder block crashed through the window and landed on Isaac’s bed. The year was 1993 and the town was Billings, Montana. But this is not a story about Isaac Schnitzer, in fact, Isaac was just one of many individuals who was targeted by the hate groups that had moved into town. And it is not a story about the evils of bigotry, although that’s certainly an element. This is a story about a town that stood together, and raised it’s voice together, to say “not in our town!”
In fact, five days after the incident, a local sporting goods store put that very message on it’s billboard: “Not in our town! No hate. No violence. Peace on earth.” The local painter’s union volunteered to repaint houses and buildings marred by vandalism. Thousands attended peace vigils, and local organizations passed resolutions condemning hate activities.
The Billings Gazette published a full page print of a menorah – and it is estimated that 10,000 people cut out the picture and taped it to their window. Some even purchased their own menorah to display in the window.
Did Billings have a large Jewish population? No. In fact, this city of 80,000 was home to only about 100 Jewish families. And 10,000 showed a menorah in their window that holiday season in 1993.
Did this activity bring an end to bigotry? Of course not. As we’ve seen in this past election season, and as I’ve reported before in this blog, hate and bigotry are alive and well in this country. But so are integrity, and hope, and resilience, and compassion.
Bigots view silence as acceptance. This is why I speak up. The only way to truly counter bigotry is to speak truth to the lies and stand together, as the town of Billings did, and say hate is not welcome here. Every time people silence themselves in the face of bigotry and hate, it grows stronger.
In the years since this event, the menorah has become a custom in Billings; a testament to the power of standing up against hate. When people think of the holiday season in Billings, they don’t think of the cinder block, or the swastikas painted on houses, or the defacement of cemeteries; they think of hope, and place a menorah in the window.
I’ve never celebrated Hanukkah before, but today I’d like to take a moment to say Happy Hanukkah to Billings. Montana. And Happy Hanukkah to the rest of you too.
Peace, Joy and Hope.