An East Texas city goes secular for the holidays, rejecting a menorah in downtown holiday display

The menorah at the Texas Capitol, on Dec. 14, 2023.
The menorah at the Texas Capitol, on Dec. 14. Officials in Smith County, which includes the city of Tyler, rejected a local request to display a menorah this year, citing a secular decorations policy. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

TYLER — After years of absence, Rabbi Neal Katz and his congregation decided this was the year a menorah should be displayed alongside the city’s Christmas tree downtown.

The last menorah was broken. So, Katz purchased a new one and hand delivered the lawn decoration, a 5 foot tall nine-branched candelabra to local officials the first Monday of November.

“A tree full of lights is something beautiful and spiritually uplifting during the darkest nights of the year,” Katz said. “Same thing with a menorah, and festival of lights.”

County officials, who own the property hosting the downtown holiday decorations, rejected Katz’s request, explaining only secular holiday decorations are displayed.

“We do not allow nativity scenes, menorahs or any other religious decorations on the square,” said Smith County Judge Neal Franklin. “This has been our practice for years.”

While Katz believes Franklin’s decision is a matter of public policy and not antisemitic, he considers it an act of aggression against the Jewish community. The flashpoint between the East Texas officials and the rabbi comes amid a rise in hate crimes targeting the Jewish community and the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

East Texans are familiar with public displays of religion making Tyler’s purely secular decorations an oddity. The appearance of nativity scenes on the lawns of government buildings is common and appreciated by many in the region.

It is impossible to drive down any street or major highway here without seeing a cross or a reference to Jesus or the Bible. Courthouses, police vehicles and more display religious beliefs. Prayers lead every public meeting, including the one held by Smith County Commissioners this week.

Jewish residents do not begrudge their Christian neighbors who decorate for Christmas, but those symbols mean nothing to them, Katz said. While the Jewish holiday takes place in proximity to Christmas, it has a distinct meaning. Also known as the Festival of Lights, the holiday remembers the temple rededication after the first time Jews fought to defend their beliefs against the Syrian Greeks.

“We always have to be careful to not think of it as like a Jewish Christmas,” Katz said.

A history in East Texas Judaism

Tyler has been a gathering place for East Texas Jews since the mid-1800s. Katz’s congregation, Beth El, was founded in 1887, making it nearly 140 years old.

The historic Jewish population provided city leadership, dominated the merchant class downtown and helped to build the city to what it is today, he said.

Jewish congregations sprouted all over Texas. However, after World War II many rural synagogues closed in towns such as Kilgore, Marshall and Jefferson. Today, the Tyler synagogues attract Jews as far south as Lufkin, nearly a two-hour drive.

Tyler, with a population of 107,192, is one of the largest cities in the 39 county region spanning from Texarkana to Orange. There are about 75 to 80 families attending Beth El, and another 40 to 50 families attending the city’s second synagogue, Ahavath Achim, Katz estimated.

He believes the population of the synagogues will remain steady or grow, as Tyler, itself, expands. He sees significant benefit in the new medical school under construction and work of the University of Texas System.

Placing the menorah

Friday is the last day of Hanukkah.

Traditionally, Jews place a menorah in the windows of their homes, lighting a new candle each night. In times of war or danger, it is permissible to keep it indoors and out of sight of the outer world.

Jews across the world have handled the recent uptick in antisemitism and the war differently. While some have decided to hide their menorahs, others have decided to display them even more proudly.

After officials rejected Katz’s request to display a menorah downtown, the rabbi held a concert to encourage his congregation to be bold this holiday season.

The Anti Defamation League recorded a significant increase in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. in the weeks directly following the war in Israel and Gaza. There were 312 incidents between Oct. 7-23, 2023, compared to the 64 that happened the same time last year, the entity reported.

And Tyler isn’t the only city across the U.S. where requests to display the menorah are being denied. Debates raged in communities from Virginia to Montana whether to allow the displays to be public.

The organizers of a musical festival in Williamsburg, Virgina, denied a local rabbi’s request to light a menorah on the first day of Hanukkah, according to Axios.

The lighting was denied over fears it would signify the city’s backing of Israel in the Israel-Hamas war. They would only allow it if an Islamic group held a ceremony at the same time or if it was under a ceasefire banner, Axios reported.

The war had nothing to do with the Tyler decision, Franklin said.

“I am sickened by the atrocities that occurred in Israel,” he said. “My heart goes out to our Jewish community at this time and you can be sure I will continue praying for our local community and Israel.”

Franklin said the county put the limits on religious decorations in the downtown square for aesthetics, to keep the display from becoming a “hodgepodge.” In fact, the square’s holiday vibe is simple. The small city’s downtown is illuminated by twinkling lights, a massive Christmas tree and a small shed for Santa and Mrs. Claus to take up residence in the late afternoon and evening hours.

Both Katz and Franklin say their relationship remains intact and consider each other friends.

As for the new menorah, Katz found a space for it at the synagogue and displayed it during a recent concert. He plans to ask the county to reconsider their decision next year.

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