SANTA CRUZ — An orthodox Jewish group must spend thousands of dollars to hire a private, 24-hour security guard or abandon its annual downtown menorah this Hanukkah after city staff said that for years they have issued the group the wrong permit to erect its candelabra.
The correct permit requires round-the-clock security for the menorah during the eight days and nights of Hanukkah, which begins Dec. 11, said Kathy Agnone, the city’s event permit coordinator. Groups must have the security lined up before the menorah can be approved.
Rabbi Yochanan Friedman with Chabad by the Sea in Santa Cruz said a private guard would cost about $5,000, which is more than his group can afford. He learned of the city’s final decision this week.
“We may not be able to do it if it is financially prohibitive,” said Friedman. “We’ll see if we have enough money to do that, and on top of that, do all the other Hanukkah activities we wanted to do.”
Agnone said the decision to require a new permit for the menorah was not prompted by a group of local atheists who since January have lobbied hard for its removal from public property. Agnone called it a coincidence that the atheist group was lobbying for the change the same time she was taking a closer look at the menorah permit.
“When folks have items needing to stay overnight, they need to have security,” Agnone said. She said the city does not decide permits based on religion, and would make the same considerations for a Christmas tree, Wiccan statue or Jerry Seinfeld-inspired Festivus pole.
The 15-foot-tall gold menorah debuted downtown in 2006, a partner to the “community” tree that is adorned with lights at the end of Pacific Avenue near Water Street. That tree was recently plugged in for the holidays, and should remain lit until February, Agnone said. Along with honoring Christmas, solstice and whatever else residents toast in December, the tree helps light up the north end of downtown during winter’s long nights, she said.
City Attorney John Barisone said a permit is not required for the community tree because downtown trees typically have lights on them, and this illuminates one more tree that already is in place. The tree does not have any ornaments. Additional celebratory Santa Cruz events include this weekend’s Holiday Parade and next week’s snow night, among other things.
But atheists have taken issue with the menorah, and said they don’t plan to drop the discussion until it’s gone — meaning Jewish leaders may have more to deal with in future years than hiring a security guard.
“I come from the position that there should be no religious symbols anywhere,” said Mai Dao-Horton of Mount Hermon, who began an online petition to ban the downtown menorah.
The community tree is acceptable, Dao-Horton said, because “everyone can embrace a tree. It’s a solsticey thing.”
Fellow atheist Sonya Newlyn of Santa Cruz said she has no problems with the community tree, because “they’ve done a conscientious job of de-Christianizing it.”
“The whole point of the tree is to kick off shopping and all that. I don’t think you can do that with a menorah,” Newlyn said.
Rabbi Friedman said he just started talking to friends in the Jewish community about whether to pay thousands of dollars for this year’s menorah. He declined to predict the outcome.
Mayor Mike Rotkin, who is Jewish, said if the community tree is allowed, a menorah must be allowed, too.
“I don’t know how you can have a holiday tree and not a menorah,” Rotkin said, noting that the tree represents Wicca and Christianity.
Councilman Ryan Coonerty, who is Jewish, usually helps to light the downtown menorah. His family owns three businesses on Pacific Avenue. With a Catholic father — County Supervisor Neal Coonerty — Coonerty said he prefers an all-inclusive approach that would welcome both the menorah and the tree to Pacific Avenue each winter.
“It always turns out to be more difficult than one would think,” Ryan Coonerty said. “But that’s my preference.”