Chip Minemyer | Menorah lighting pushes back shadows of anti-Semitic vandalism

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, was inspired by a victory over oppression and a deep faith that kept a candle burning for eight days with only one day’s supply of oil.

A public menorah-lighting ceremony Monday on the Penn State campus will celebrate the holiday.

But in the wake of anti-Semitic vandalism at a predominantly Jewish fraternity, Rabbi Nosson Meretsky knows there is added meaning this year.

Meretsky is director of Rohr Chabad Jewish Student and Community Center, the Penn State organization that will host the 5 p.m. lighting on the steps of Old Main.

“The community can band together and really come out and have a representation that we’re not going to be affected by these attacks of vandalism,” Meretsky said.

The vandalism “makes it even more appropriate,” he said.

“The opportunity to come together as a community becomes very important, for the students and for the community.”

State College police said vandals spray-painted anti-Semitic messages and swastikas on cars and a building at Beta Sigma Beta fraternity early on the morning of Nov. 8.

Police called the act a hate crime.

Penn State President Rodney Erickson and other top school officials condemned the acts of vandalism as “unacceptable” and pledged to push for “appropriate and effective accountability.”

About a week after the incident, police released security-camera images they said show two men who may have committed the vandalism. No arrests have been made, but State College Police Chief Tom King on Saturday said action could come soon.

“This isn’t some minor situation,” King previously told the CDT. “This is hatred directed toward a group of people.”

Police offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. The alumni chapter of Beta Sigma Beta contributed $1,000 to the reward total.

King said the vandalism was not “a prank or something that’s funny. This is intolerance. This is hate. This is directed toward a predominantly Jewish fraternity. Like anywhere across the country, and definitely in this community, there is really no tolerance for that kind of hatred.”

King added: “There is a clear line, and this stepped far over the line.”

Beta Sigma Beta has had a Penn State chapter since 1913. The fraternal organization is active in philanthropy, notably efforts to support autism awareness and treatment, its website shows.

Meretsky said the fraternity’s top student officer was invited to participate in Monday’s menorah lighting, as were the leaders of other campus Jewish groups.

Off-campus community leaders are also expected to take part in the ceremony, Meretsky said.

“It’s an important event, to have something that is visible, coming together to celebrate Hanukkah in a public way,” Meretsky said.

“We’ll be gathering to remember the miracle and publicize the miracle.”

Meretsky said Monday evening’s activities will include traditional holiday foods, a raffle with prizes and children’s crafts.

The Chabad will have 200 free menorahs available.

Although the eight days of Hanukkah began on the evening before Thanksgiving, the public menorah lighting was delayed because Penn State was on break.

“We’ve been doing this every year since 2001,” he said.

Clearly this year’s event is different, beyond the geographic move from the State College Municipal Building to a spot on campus overlooking College Avenue.

“The best reaction is to become even more visible,” Meretsky said. “When people respond this way, it gives strength to the people. When we stand out proudly and openly and visibly, that can be the cure for a lot of this anti-Semitic vandalism.

“The Jewish people at the university, Jewish students, and anyone else — this affects everyone. Everyone in America, everyone here, can go back a few generations and have times when they were targeted for hatred. It teaches everyone to be more proud, more open, about their heritage.”

The first Beta Sigma Beta chapter was founded in 1910 at Cornell University by four Jewish students who had been denied admission to other fraternities.

More than a century later, we’re still working on our social and religious differences.

“It’s kind of interesting that it’s come full circle,” Meretsky said.

It would be great to have the Old Main steps overflowing on Monday with a mix of people from various religious and cultural backgrounds, all basking in the menorah’s light and proclaiming that we stand together against intolerance.

“When things like this happen, when people do these kinds of acts, vandalism that is anti-Semitic, it could easily come across as intimidating,” Meretsky said. “But we’ve seen empirical evidence that just the opposite is happening here.”

Reached Saturday, King said police have “good evidence as to the persons responsible,” and they hope to release more information this week.

In the meantime, he said, a celebration of community enlightenment is certainly in order.

“It would be wonderful if students and non-students came together to celebrate the menorah lighting,” King said.