Calgary mayor’s decision not to attend menorah lighting is ‘a slap in the face’ to the Jewish community, event organizers say

The poster for the community menorah lighting in Calgary, Dec. 7. , 2023

Jewish organizations in Calgary are expressing immense disappointment following the decision by the city’s mayor not to participate in a menorah lighting ceremony on Dec. 7, the first night of Hanukkah, because, in her words, it had been “repositioned as an event to support Israel.”

In a Dec. 6 statement, Mayor Jyoti Gondek said, “When I was asked to speak weeks ago, it was to bring traditional greetings celebrating Hanukkah and the spirit of Calgary’s Jewish community. The last-minute change goes against the original intention and has left me feeling let down by leadership. I am saddened that this change makes it impossible for me to attend tomorrow’s event (on Dec.7).”

Rabbi Menachem Matusof of Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta told The CJN that he and other organizers have worked very closely with Calgary City Hall to address various concerns, particularly security, in preparing for tonight’s event. At no time, he said, had the event’s agenda been altered.

“This is a slap in the face. I hope she will change her mind. She made her decision without speaking to us,” he said.

“Nothing has changed since we first spoke with city hall. This is a Hanukkah celebration. It was never intended to be a demonstration for Israel. Of course, we support Israel proudly. Nobody can take that away from us.”

In a statement released this morning, the Calgary Jewish Federation said, “Our mayor’s decision to withdraw from tonight’s Chanukah event is extremely disappointing, harmful, and offensive to our Jewish community. In more than 35 years, a mayor has never chosen to miss this annual celebration during which we welcome in the light from the darkness and recognize the historic events of the Chanukah story.

“For Mayor Gondek to turn her back on our community, most notably on the eve of the two-month anniversary of the Oct. 7 massacre, is a slap in the face to our community and to anyone who condemns the barbaric actions of Hamas,” the statement goes on to read.

Shortly after news of the mayor’s announcement broke last night, Calgary Jewish leaders said they were tremendously hurt and disappointed by the mayor’s decision.

“As always, and particularly at this time, our community does not waver in our support of Israel, nor will our community forget that 140 Israeli hostages still remain in captivity. Our yearning for peace in Israel and Gaza do not run counter to our support of Eretz Israel, but rather are inextricably linked,” announced Lisa Libin and Adam Silver, Calgary Jewish Federation president and CEO, respectively, and Rabbi and Rochel Matusof of Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta.

In addition to leading voices in the Calgary Jewish community, several Conservative politicians in Alberta have criticized the mayor for her decision.

“We are deeply troubled by Mayor Gondek’s decision to withdraw from tonight’s menorah lighting event at Calgary City Hall,” said Pat Kelly, chairman of the city’s Conservative caucus and the member of Parliament for Calgary Rocky Ridge.

“Her decision to withdraw could dangerously normalize antisemitism at a time when, across campuses and communities, Jewish Canadians are already feeling threatened. Further, her absence and the statement she issued last night will not bring our city’s communities together. As public servants, we need to show up, provide leadership, and bring people together for our common good.”

The mayor had been expected to greet those in attendance at the menorah lighting, which was scheduled for 5:30 pm (MST) in the atrium of Calgary’s Municipal Building.  Local personalities, community leaders and other dignitaries will be present at the event which will also include music, an Israel Bonds raffle and traditional Hanukkah food.

Gondek, who was elected mayor in 2021, said that the menorah lighting ceremony was an event she looked forward to attending every year. As mayor, she said, it was her responsibility to attend “diverse and inclusive events” with people from different faiths and ethnic communities.

“However, when a celebration of community is turned into something with political intentions, it goes against the mission to uphold diversity and inclusion,” Gondek said.

Gondek added that in many conversations with Jewish and Muslim leaders in Calgary she felt that there had been an agreement to act in an interfaith manner and to move forward in peace and prayer.

“The changed nature of (the) event creates a divide and forces people to choose a side,” she said. “There are no sides to choose when terrorists incite violence by murdering innocent Israelis, knowing retaliation will follow and lead to the murder of innocent Palestinians.”

While expressing sympathy for Jewish and Palestinian Calgarians who have lost loved ones in the conflict, Gondek argued that Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks was spreading division and hatred.

Earlier this week, Moncton, N.B. found itself in the national spotlight when its council decided in a closed doors meeting on Nov. 27 not to display a menorah outside of its city hall.

In the ensuing outcry, Moncton city council reversed its decision. “We acted too quickly,” Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold conceded on Dec. 4.