Governor Kay Ivey addresses the crowd at the Dec. 22 ceremony (Photos by Hal Yeager/Governor’s Office)
History was made on Dec. 22 as Alabama Governor Kay Ivey hosted the state’s Jewish community for a Chanukah menorah lighting at the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery.
Over 150 members of the state’s Jewish community, including Jewish Federation directors and most of the state’s pulpit rabbis, attended, as Auburn Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl battled the wind to light the menorah on the front porch.
“This is a great event, and I am so pleased that you are here” despite the cold and threat of rain, Ivey said. She recalled traveling to Israel a few years ago, and “ever since then, my Christmas and Easter have been more meaningful.”
Her remarks centered on how light plays a meaningful role “in both our faith traditions.” Each day, she said, “we have two options: we can either light a candle and place it on a table so others can see… or we can selfishly light a candle and place it under a bushel to only benefit ourselves.”
The lights of Chanukah remind that “God will always defeat the darkness, and in a world where it seems that the light is dimmed, it is important for us to stay guided by the light and to harness its brightness so that we may be the difference in this world… let us come together and agree to never allow the light of God’s peace to go out.”
Pearl greeted the crowd with “Chag sameach.” Hoarse from the previous evening’s basketball victory at the University of Washington, Pearl thanked Ivey, saying “this turnout is because you invited us,” and “as Jews living here in the state of Alabama, we are blessed to be able to practice our faith in a safe way. That’s not the case all over the world, and we are grateful for that, and we look forward to celebrating Chanukah again with you in the future.”
Before the ceremony, as Pearl and Ivey sat together on the porch, Pearl looked out at the crowd and told Ivey “this is incredible.”
Because of his voice, Pearl asked the crowd to join him in singing the blessings.
Rabbi Steven Silberman of Ahavas Chesed in Mobile, the longest-serving pulpit rabbi at a single congregation in the state, spoke of the small group of people who fought for their freedom almost 2200 years ago, which along with the oil for the menorah, are the two miracles of Chanukah.
“Every single day we have the opportunity to go and look in the world for those small elements that are miraculous, and indeed we can contribute to the small miracles to make our world safer and more secure, a world of greater respect,” he said.
He told Ivey that opening her home to the event “indicates tremendous respect and we are all very grateful.”
The menorah used in the ceremony was presented to Ivey by Silberman as a gift from the Sisterhood at Ahavas Chesed. “May it be for years to come that this Chanukiah will serve as a reminder of the importance of Jewish life in Alabama,” he later said.
The event came about after an inquiry to Ivey’s office by Ginger Brook of Birmingham (disclosure: she is the wife of Southern Jewish Life editor Larry Brook). During the term of former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, there were Chanukah lightings at the mansion in Jackson, and while the family was there while covering the events for this magazine, she wondered why Alabama did not do something similar.
Earlier this year she contacted Ivey’s office, but the enthusiastic response did not come until just after the election, so it would not be seen as a political move during Ivey’s re-election campaign. The state’s Jewish Federations were then enlisted to assist with the guest list, with an emphasis on young families, and the event was quickly organized.
There was sidewalk chalk and cornhole for the children, and sufganiyot were served. The children received Alabama coloring books, and the adults received embossed governor’s mansion leather notebooks.
As one of the largest gatherings of representatives from the state’s Jewish communities, there was a lot of socializing after the gates opened just before 4:30 p.m. The mansion itself was extensively decorated for Christmas, including dozens of Christmas trees indoors for the annual Holiday Candlelight tours that had taken place the previous weeks. An electric menorah was part of the indoor display.
Two large Nutcrackers, one on each side of the outside stairs, had been moved for the Chanukah ceremony.
Utah has had a ceremony at the governor’s mansion since 2007. Florida and South Dakota are among states with similar ceremonies. Other states like Idaho, Kansas and Kentucky hold an event at the State Capitol. Chabad of Baton Rouge holds an annual lighting in front of the Louisiana Capitol, and Chabad of Nashville does the same for Tennessee.
The ceremony ended just after 5:30 p.m. so those who traveled the farthest could get home before incoming rainstorms and a cold front that brought a hard freeze to the state overnight.
Silberman concluded with “tzetchem l’shalom, go in peace, and Happy Chanukah.”