Moncton city councillors cancelled a 20-year tradition of lighting a Hanukkah menorah outside city hall

Moncton Menorah 2022 lighting
Jewish leaders in Moncton, New Brunswick light the city-owned large Hanukkah menorah outside city hall on Dec. 20, 2022. (Submitted photo)

A Moncton city councillor has shed some light on how the largest city in New Brunswick unexpectedly decided to cancel this year’s annual Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony outside the municipal building.

Daniel Bourgeois, who represents Ward 2, told The Canadian Jewish News that the decision came during a private discussion. Councillors were given a choice of either banning all religious symbols on the property this season, or only allowing a select few, he said.

Bourgeois said he tried to point out that the controversial decision to cancel both the menorah lighting—and also the annual construction of the Nativity display showing the birth of Jesus—makes little sense, when the city participates in other clearly Christian religious holiday events. 

“I also expressed my concern that the St. Nicholas parade and the Lewisville Park tree were symbols of Christianity, so should also be banned along this logic, but to no avail,” Bourgeois said.

The City of Moncton was a sponsor for the annual Royale Greater Moncton Santa Claus parade, which took place on Main Street on Nov. 25. The city’s official Christmas tree installation was lit four days ago at Lewisville Park.

“My preference would have been to discuss with ALL religious groups to determine how to respect ALL religious symbols. My colleagues did not entertain this option,” Bourgeois added.

Bourgeois’ comments come following a surprise decision by the city to do away with the Jewish menorah lighting event this year, for the first time since 2003. 

Moncton’s Jewish leaders were informed on Nov. 30 about the new policy, during a meeting with the mayor Dawn Arnold, city councillor Susan Edgett, and Isabelle Leblanc, the city’s director of communications.

Emails to the office of the mayor, Dawn Arnold, and to the city’s communications manager, Isabelle Leblanc, have not been answered.

According to Francis Weil, president of the Moncton Jewish community, the city actually purchased its own large menorah in 2003 when the lighting tradition began, and subsequently bought an even bigger one several years ago.

The abrupt policy change stunned the small Jewish community, not only because their leaders were not consulted, but also because of the timing of it. It comes as worldwide antisemitism has exploded in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war.

“The Jewish community does not understand this decision. It is both illogical and heartbreaking,” said Francis Weil, president of the Moncton Tiferes Israel congregation. “We hear often that our city is welcoming to all the cultural groups. Why then make such a decision, which for us means that we are excluded?”

According to Jewish leaders, city officials told them they are trying to comply with a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that found having a Catholic prayer recited before a council meeting in Saguenay, Que. discriminated against an atheist’s freedom of religion. 

For Moncton-born lawyer Leigh Lampert, who is on the synagogue board and attended the meeting virtually from his home in Toronto, there are several troubling issues. The first is that the decision was not debated in an open, public council session. 

The second issue is the city couldn’t explain why it made the decision now, just one week before Hanukkah 2023. Does it mean the city is taking a position against Israel amidst current protests by pro-Palestinian groups across the country, or are officials worried the menorah would become a target for vandalism or even violence, he was asked.

“We asked that very question and there was no real answer other than, ‘Oh, it’s something we’ve been talking about for years’,” Lampert said, adding that the timing is curious. “When they cite a case that was decided eight years ago and suddenly a week before Hanukkah, we’re advised of this.”

Lampert calls the new policy “bizarre”, as many Christian religious symbols are still being displayed on city property.

“The mayor explained that the council believes that City Hall is the people’s house and is not the appropriate place to be displaying religious artifacts, yet Christmas trees, angels remain, and so it was a bit of a bizarre rationale, if I may say so,” Lampert said.

The city later offered the community to hold the menorah lighting off site, in a city park, which Lampert felt was not satisfactory.

“Either you separate the church and state or you don’t, but by definition, once you start picking and choosing which artifacts are allowed and which aren’t, that by definition is discrimination,” Lampert said. “That’s exactly what discrimination is.”

The news has prompted criticism from Jewish leaders across the country and around the world.

A petition is now urging the city to reconsider. The initiator, George Hannon, launched the initiative after what he calls the “unsettling message” that cancelling the menorah lighting sends to the Moncton Jewish community.

“This has left us feeling marginalized and unheard at a time when antisemitism is on an alarming rise by 1,200 percent globally,” Hannon’s petition says. “The removal of our menorah feels like another blow to our already embattled community.”

Francis Weil, the president of the Moncton Jewish community, sent a letter to the mayor and city councillors on the weekend, imploring them to reverse the decision in time for Hanukkah, which begins Thursday Dec. 7.

“I believe that all of you are decent people and I trust you to do the right thing,” Weil wrote.

Despite the Moncton decision, many communities in Canada are proceeding with their official Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremonies, including the one scheduled for Dec. 7 outside Halifax City Hall.

The mayor of Hampstead, Que., Jeremy Levi, has thrown his support behind his Moncton Jewish counterparts.  In a social media post, Levi promised to erect a second menorah outside the town hall in the Montreal suburb this week.