What started as a private conversation between Rabbi Mendy Heber of Chabad Williamsburg and event founder Shirley Vermillion about a potential candle-lighting ceremony has been shared with media outlets — prompting questions about antisemitism and highlighting how, thousands of miles away from the Israel-Gaza war, a Hanukkah menorah has become political.
“Singling out the Jewish community by canceling this Hanukkah celebration is absurd and antisemitic,” Youngkin said on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday. “The event organizers should immediately reconsider their actions and move forward with the menorah lighting.”
This dispute comes as Israel is expanding its ground operation against Hamas across the Gaza Strip, forcing many displaced civilians to flee again. As the war continues, U.S. federal officials say they have been responding to a rise in threats against Arab, Jewish and Muslim communities thousands of miles away from the conflict.
Heber had hoped a menorah lighting this coming Sunday, the fourth night of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, during an arts and music festival in Williamsburg, Va., would be a chance to highlight the message of light amid darkness, without emphasizing religion.
The festival occurs on the second Sunday of every month from March to December, with more than 150 artisans, musicians, street performers and food vendors.
However, Heber’s proposal was ultimately rejected. Vermillion, the organizer, said in a statement to The Washington Post that the festival has never included religious events and told the Virginia Gazette that the organization has also denied past requests from Christian and other religious groups to perform.
She also said in a private message to Heber — which a local Jewish group shared with The Post — that organizers were rejecting the proposal “unless we could get an Islamic group to participate at the same time. We are about Peace, Love & light… don’t want to make it seem we’re choosing a side — supporting the killing/bombing of thousands of men, women & children.”
Heber replied: “This would not have anything to do with Israel! Nothing to do with Zionism. Everything to do with adding light in the world.”
Ultimately, Vermillion proposed another option: “Our board members said they’d be ok with proceeding if you’d do it under a cease fire banner.”
The fallout of their conversation has led to a controversy neither Heber or Vermillion initially anticipated and reflects how Americans are navigating difficult discussions about the Israel-Gaza war with friends, families and neighbors, and damaging relationships in the process.
Vermillion, a dental hygienist, was not immediately available for a phone interview on Monday because she was seeing patients at work and then needed to speak with the police about “some threats that I need to document,” but she elaborated on the controversy in an email and texts to The Post.
“In these volatile times, including one religious and cultural group and not the other sides would have been misconstrued all over (I unfortunately made the mistake of engaging in a conversation with Rabbi Mendy about it without getting the full opinion and guidance of the board),” Vermillion said in an email. “I don’t read or watch the news at all…too busy with festival organizing and life — wasn’t not FULLY aware of the atrocities happening until after the discussion had begun (and didn’t think thru how it could be twisted on us and then ironically this) and we quickly corrected to stay the course of UNIFYING, Cultural and religious NEUTRAL Live music, dance and street performers as we have for 14 yrs.”
Heber said that Chabad has sold challah at the festival since May.
“Our relationship with the Second Sunday festival has been wonderful, until now,” he said Monday in an interview with The Post. “We would have been perfectly fine with the response: ‘Rabbi, scheduling it’s not going to work,’ regardless of your reasoning. But to give me a reason that I need to take a political stance in order to move forward and confirm the details of the event is shocking and disturbing.”
The United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula issued a statement on Sunday calling the decision discriminatory and requesting that the organization reconsider holding a menorah lighting. Victoria LaCivita, a spokesperson for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, said in an email that the agency’s antisemitism task force has been involved with local Jewish leaders regarding the incident.
“Hanukkah is not political; it’s a peaceful religious holiday that has been celebrated and recognized for thousands of years,” Attorney General Jason Miyares said in a statement.
Williamsburg Police Investigator Steve Roberts Jr. said he was not authorized to speak on the matter and referred questions to Nicole Trifone, a spokesperson for the city manager’s office. Trifone acknowledged in a statement Monday that the city knew of “messages that could be construed as threatening sent to the event and event organizer,” but added that they were not aware of any organized antisemitic activity.
“This is a private matter in which the City of Williamsburg is not involved, and we have no role in curating the artists, vendors, or participants of 2nd Sundays,” Trifone said.
Facebook users also have been commenting on the page of LoveLight Placemaking, the nonprofit organization behind the event. The commenters have criticized the group’s decision to refrain from holding a menorah lighting and the request that if such a ceremony did occur, it would need to be under a banner calling for a cease-fire. Commenters called the decision antisemitic.
Vermillion rejects that characterization and said the street festival is being falsely accused of bigotry when organizers were not able to accommodate a menorah lighting for reasons relating to logistics as well as a desire to refrain from highlighting any specific religion. She said the organization supports the Jewish small businesses and musicians who participate in the festival.
“The biggest thing is all of the facts were not shared — and it’s sad that the most inclusive organization and event in Williamsburg is being targeted for trying to stay neutral,” Vermillion said.