On Wednesday, Chabad released a somewhat fascinating trove of documents about Bernie Sanders’s activity as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, including his correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom he honored twice by establishing a “Day of Education” in the 1980s. The research, completed by Chabad.org editor Dovid Margolin, attests to Sanders’s support for freedom of religion, which aligns with his current campaign for president—unlike Donald Trump’s xenophobic platform.
In 1983, Mayor Sanders was approached by two Chabad representatives in Vermont, who asked for permission to erect an 8-foot menorah on the steps of City Hall. And, of course, they lovingly invited him to join. He accepted.
…On December 1, 1983, in front of a crowd of about 35 Jewish students from the University of Vermont, [Bernie Sanders] came out to the steps of City Hall, donned a kippah, flawlessly read the blessings aloud, and lit two candles, corresponding to the second night of Chanukah.
A few years later, Rabbi Yitzchak Raskin asked permission to place a much larger menorah on the steps of City Hall, and this time, for all eight nights of the holiday. Again, Sanders okayed this request, but the ACLU took issue. Soon, however, a city attorney declared that the menorah was A-OK where it was. The next year, the ACLU took issue again with the menorah yet again.
It is difficult to overstate how closely allied the ACLU and Bernie Sanders were on the vast majority of social issues. Yet when activists—with the assistance of the ACLU—finally did file suit against the city in June of 1988, Sanders and his administration chose to vigorously defend their position in court.
The saga continued, and year later a U.S. District Judge ruled in favor of keeping the menorah where it was. But:
The ruling was overturned a year later by the Second Court of Appeals, which claimed, in part, that since the menorah stood in the park alone (i.e., without any symbols of other religions, as was the case in Allegheny County v. ACLU, in which the Supreme Court ruled the public display of a menorah was constitutional), it was therefore in violation of the Establishment Clause.
In subsequent years, Chabad’s Raskin placed the menorah in Waterfront Park (also government property, but not directly in front of City Hall, which mollified the Appeals Court’s reasoning that a menorah with City Hall in the background was a de facto endorsement of a particular religion by the municipality). Today, the menorah goes up in the heart of Burlington on a central patch on the campus of the University of Vermont.
Another interesting finding by Chabad are two correspondences between Sanders and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Sanders joined the national “Education Day” proclaimed annually on the date of the Rebbe’s Jewish calendric birthdate (which varies each year on the regular secular calendar), and proclaimed Education Day in Burlington in honor of the Rebbe’s 81st birthday in 1983 and 83rd birthday in 1985.
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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.