Has anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in the Guilford community? Dr. Gary Pushkin and his wife, Kathy Abbott, believe it has, citing it as the reason their request to have a menorah displayed alongside the community’s “holiday tree” was denied.
“They’ve had a Christmas tree there for years,” Pushkin said on Monday just hours before the beginning of Chanukah. “They’ve always had a Christmas tree, an Easter egg hunt and a Halloween thing. Other than the Halloween thing with our kids, it’s not us.”
At some point, though Pushkin could not recall exactly when, the Guildford Association started calling it a holiday tree. This year’s tree lighting took place Dec. 7 with the invitation noting the opportunity to enjoy caroling and homemade desserts, including kosher ones.
The large tree sits in the center of Sherwood Gardens. According to Pushkin, three of the four houses on his block that back onto the gardens are inhabited by Jews.
On his second-floor balcony, Pushkin has for years displayed his 3-foot-tall menorah.
“My Jewish neighbors have said it’s nice to have a reminder of what night we’re on,” said Pushkin. “My wife and I thought this was the time we wanted to put our chanukiah in Sherwood Gardens alongside the tree.
“I was ready to just go in there and put it up, run an electrical cord from my house,” he continued. “My wife said, ‘No, let’s let [the board] know what we want to do. They’re not going to say no; let’s do this properly.’”
But the board did say no in the form of a response from Guilford Association president Tom Hobbs to a Dec. 12 email from Pushkin.
“As you know Sherwood Gardens is owned by Stratford Green Inc.,” Hobbs said in his email reply. “The trustees have been very clear that the holiday tree should be considered a secular lighted seasonal holiday tree for all to enjoy. There was to be nothing added that would indicate religious connotation. … I am certain that the trustees will not agree to the placement of a lighted menorah within the gardens.”
Abbott followed up with an email of her own stating her dismay and referenced the Supreme Court decision that allows menorahs to be used in public holiday displays. She reiterated her request and received no response, so Abbott wrote again, this time offering to take responsibility for lighting each new candle and ensuring the chanukiah be removed by the evening of Dec. 25.
Again she received no response, so she wrote Hobbs once more and addressed the silence: “Am I to assume that the initial refusal to display the menorah in the Gardens stands?” she wrote. “Or should I assume it is a silent acknowledgment and consent that the Court rules supreme and that it is appropriate to include the menorah in a secular holiday display?”
Hobbs replied by email: “The uniformly applied policy of the trustees has not changed. Sherwood Gardens is not government owned and is not a forum for public or private expression. The placement of a menorah, cross, crescent or any other religious or ethnic symbol in the private Sherwood Gardens will not be approved.”
In a final email sent the morning of Dec. 16, Abbott wrote that she felt “ostracized by the tree lighting” and that “although Guilford is a private community, I would expect it to be a constitutionally sensitive and compliant one.”
She levied the accusation that the board was motivated by anti-Semitism.
When reached for comment, Hobbs replied by email that “in order to prevent being required to give equal space in the Gardens to the many faiths in the world, the placement or display of a cross, manger, nativity scene, menorah, Kwanzaa display, star and crescent or any other religious or ethnic symbol in the Gardens has been determined to be inappropriate.
“In this context,” he continued, “for decades, and as practiced in many other similar locales, a simple tree with only lights, funded solely by volunteer donors of diverse faiths,
including both Christians and Jews, has been allowed in the Gardens during the winter months as a widely accepted, neutral, secular and nondenominational recognition of the general holiday and winter season with no expressed or intended religious or ethnic symbol or reference.”
“I’m appalled,” said Abbott. “I don’t think his response represents the makeup and feeling of the community,” a community that she chose for its diversity.
“I’m as much an owner as Tom Hobbs is,” said Pushkin, who belongs to Ner Tamid. “It’s anti-Semitism. You can call it anything you want, but don’t tell me that the Christmas tree is a secular item of the holiday.”
“By no means am I asking them to remove the Christmas tree,” added Abbott. “I would hate for the Christmas tree to come down because there is no menorah. I want to be respectful of our community’s diverse background.”