Several months after swastikas were posted outside Perry High School, students are displaying an alternative message by building a giant menorah.
CTeen East Valley, a club of local Jewish teenagers, constructed a seven-foot-tall menorah this past month and received permission to display it in Perry’s front office.
Rabbi Tzvi Rimler, who leads the CTeen club, said some students noticed none of Perry’s holiday decorations represented Jewish customs.
The club’s members decided to correct this by building a life-size menorah and informing classmates of its peaceful symbolism.
“A lot of these kids don’t even know what a menorah is,” Rimler said.
The menorah is an ancient candelabrum often associated with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. One of the instrument’s nine branches is lighted during each night of the winter celebration.
The ritual pays tribute to the Hebrew story of a one-day supply of oil keeping candles lit for up to eight days during a tumultuous historical period when Jews were being oppressed in Israel.
“This is a universal symbol of light over darkness,” Rimler added.
The public display comes at a time when the East Valley has seen several incidents involving anti-Semitic iconography.
A Chandler woman’s menorah was bent and distorted into the shape of a Swastika in 2016.
Three teenagers were arrested for the vandalism and accepted plea agreements obligating them to meet with a Holocaust survivor.
Hackers gained access into an electronic traffic sign last year near Queen Creek and changed its letters to spell “Hail Hitler.”
Posters displaying Swastika symbols have been found in Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert over this past year. In March, a couple of these posters were found outside Perry High School.
Rabbi Rimler believes many of these incidents are done out of ignorance and think they can be avoided through more education.
This is how the menorah’s presence in school can make an impact, he added, because it conveys a message of peace and brotherhood.
“When there’s so much craziness going on in the world,” Rimler said, “it’s super important our students learn about an easier way to confront conflict and bring about friendship.”
Religious symbols are typically prohibited from any type of public setting, but the courts have granted some exceptions for menorahs.
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a split ruling on the constitutionality of having Christian and Jewish symbols on display inside a Pennsylvania courthouse.
A five-justice majority found the presence of a nativity scene to be in violation of the Establishment Clause and ordered for it to be removed. But five other justices did not object to an 18-foot-tall menorah placed outside the courthouse.
The majority concluded the menorah encompassed a secular message because it was positioned next to a giant Christmas tree.
“It is not sufficiently likely a reasonable observer would view the combined display as an endorsement or disapproval of his individual religious choices,” wrote Justice Harry Blackmun.
Rabbi Rimler said they obtained the school’s approval before erecting the menorah and made sure its presence would not violate any rules. The CTeen club hopes to encourage more East Valley schools to put one up during the next holiday season, he added.