All Eyes on a Phila. Menorah

Source: All Eyes on a Phila. Menorah, Jim Remsen INQUIRER FAITH LIFE EDITOR

The big phone call came a week ago, out of the blue. Roy Feinberg was wary. "When the call comes - 'the White House' - you think it's a joke," he said. This was no prank. White House staffers on the prowl for a showcase Hanukkah menorah had learned about the eminent Judaica collection at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, the large Philadelphia synagogue where Feinberg is executive director. A flurry of phone calls and faxes later, the staffers had found what they needed.

So tomorrow night, when Rodeph Shalom members gather to begin Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, they won't be lighting the first candle in the big brass menorah they've used for years in their historic sanctuary on North Broad Street. The grand candelabra, four feet high and crowned by a patriotic eagle, has been whisked away for a quick professional buffing. It's about to have a shining moment - as this year's official White House menorah. It's bound for the first family's residential quarters, with President Bush slated to preside at a photo-op lighting ceremony with it Wednesday. "Our people will get a real kick out of this," said Feinberg, who said the final go-ahead came Monday. The winning piece is a 1930 model that was given to Rodeph Shalom in memory of one Irene B. Brandes. It isn't particularly old or valuable - it isn't even in the Reform synagogue's Obermayer Collection of Ritual Art, and it doesn't have an appraised value - but Feinberg said its handsome proportions caught the eye of White House aides Tevi Troy and Donna Hayashi Smith. The menorah will hardly have as high-profile a presence as the towering Christmas tree that is erected and lighted on the White House grounds every year. Instead, the menorah will be installed in a room called the Bookseller's Area and be the centerpiece of a White House staff party. Bush is scheduled to attend and make the customary presidential Hanukkah greetings. That means the menorah won't have its big moment until the sixth night of the eight-day holiday. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the President's travel schedule and other commitments were causing the delay. Celebrations of religion at the symbolic heart of U.S. government distress groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. But Rob Boston, spokesman for the Washington-based advocacy group, said the White House keeps its holiday displays legal by following the so-called Reindeer Rule. The rule, established by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires that religious objects such as creches and menorahs "be part of a larger array" that includes secular items such as reindeer, garlands and snowflakes. Feinberg simply sees the menorah gesture as "an honor. We're glad to see [President Bush] show respect to the Jewish community." As soon as the White House aides had zeroed in on Rodeph Shalom's menorah, Feinberg took action.

He toted it in his Honda down to Pine Street's Antique Row for a rush refinishing job at Chelsea Plating Co. There, shop owner David Kieserman and metalsmith Marc Regan disassembled the 20-pound patient and went to work. They've rethreaded some pieces here and applied a little solder there. They've gently tugged the candle arms into exact alignment and spent hours polishing every millimeter. Buffing the tight angles and repairing the rusted joints has been challenging, "but we get a lot of unexpected surprises in this business," Kieserman said Tuesday, as the main piece lay on a carpeted workbench surrounded by jars of polish, spray bottles, and tools of the craft. Kieserman is determined to have the menorah reassembled and ready, with a fresh coat of clear lacquer, by Saturday. Though he isn't a Rodeph Shalom member, he said he will donate Chelsea's time, which he estimated at 15 hours.

On Monday morning, Feinberg is to return to the shop with his Honda. He said he'll drop the back seat, lay the menorah inside, wrapped in a blanket, and head off to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a special delivery. No one from Rodeph Shalom's 1,200 member families is invited to Wednesday's ceremony, and the arrangement has come together so quickly that Feinberg hasn't figured out when he'll get the menorah back. "I know they can store it off-site until we get it," he said. "There's less of a rush to get it back. We only use it one time a year."

For questions or comments contact Jim Remsen at 215-854-5621 or