The start of the story is all too familiar. For nearly two decades, Chabad at Harvard has erected public menorahs across the city of Cambridge. Like many such public Jewish holiday displays, these menorahs have occasionally been defaced by those angered by Jews and their symbols. Usually, this happens at night, with the perpetrator hoping to avoid detection, as was the case when an Arizona menorah in 2016 was twisted into a swastika. In this case, however, the menorah Chabad had erected in Cambridge Common was toppled by a bigot in broad daylight on Sunday afternoon, which meant that many witnessed the anti-Semitic act.
The vandalism was captured on video. So was what happened next. “A group of wonderful citizens who were nearby and witnessed it immediately jumped into action to restore the menorah,” related Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi of Harvard Chabad. One of those people was Ron Suskind, a 59-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who had taught at Harvard’s various schools for years.
A resident of Harvard square, Suskind was walking through the area with his wife when “we saw a couple folks there gathered to the left of the path around something.” It was the menorah. The group explained to Suskind what had happened. “One of the women said that a guy had come up on a bike, leaped off and quite intentionally knocked over this menorah just about five minutes before we got there.” The woman had called the police.
“So there we were, waiting for the police,” recalled Suskind, “and I looked down at the menorah there facedown in the grass, and felt just how very wrong that was—this symbol of a people’s survival and triumph over many thousands of years laid low. And so I said, ‘Let’s just pick this damn thing up, it’s wrong for it to be here.’”
This turned out to be a lot harder than Suskind had anticipated. “I tried to pick it up and it was heavy! Wrought iron or something,” he chuckled. “At which point I was like, ‘I’m gonna need some help.’” Suskind quickly canvassed Cambridge Common for some helpers, grabbing an African-American student and a man talking on his cellphone. “I told him, ‘please hang up your phone, sir, I need you,’” he said. “Then we all grabbed the menorah and righted it, and then I said a berakha [blessing] as we all stood around it.”
Last night, at a public lighting of the menorah, the mayor of Cambridge presented proclamations of commendation to all involved in restoring it. For Chabad’s Zarchi, it was this response that was the real significance of the entire affair. Because while Chabad was sadly no stranger to anti-Semitic vandalism, the reaction to it was something new.
“This very menorah was vandalized in the past,” Zarchi explained. “In the other two instances, it was done really late at night or early in the morning when there were no witnesses. This happened in the broad daylight, which makes it more brazen, but on the other hand, it resulted in people seeing it and enabled them to respond. And the way they responded is for us the power of this particular story.”
For Suskind, the experience of restoring the menorah with anonymous strangers symbolized for him something important about America. “I couldn’t lift that menorah myself, with all my might,” he said. “The fact is, part of the power of this country is that we need each other at moments like this to do the thing that is right.”
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.