He’s being called the “rabbi who stole Christmas.” But Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky insists it was not his idea to remove 14 Christmas trees from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. All he asked, he said, was that his eight-foot menorah be displayed as well. “Removing the trees was a foolish decision by the Port [of Seattle] and they said they made a mistake,” Rabbi Bogomilsky said. The trees — one about 15 or 20-feet high and 13 smaller ones that sit on a platform over each door — were removed last Friday after the airport was threatened with a lawsuit by the rabbi’s lawyer, according to Mark Reis, the director of the airport. The trees were returned Monday after a controversy that made national headlines and after the rabbi assured officials there would be no lawsuit.
A spokesman for the airport, Bob Parker, said he understood that the airport was given an 18-hour deadline to either display the menorah or face a lawsuit.
“It was never filed, but we were given a copy of it,” he said of the suit. Rabbi Bogomilsky denied that a threat was ever issued, but he said the Port of Seattle removed the trees and then “issued a statement saying the rabbi was offended by the trees.”
“That created a lot of hatred,” the rabbi said, noting that he and other officers of the Lubavitch-affiliated Chai Center of Greater Seattle, where he serves as executive director, received at least 5,000 e-mails about the issue. “They were coming in at two or three a minute and they were coming from all over,” Rabbi Bogomilsky said. “A lot of Christians and Jews were sending support, but some people were sending nasty e-mails. There were a lot of hate e-mails.”
He said one called him the “rabbi who stole Christmas,” and that another referred to him as “Rabbi Grinch.”
Rabbi Bogomilsky said he became involved in the issue after a Jewish contractor who had worked at the airport for a number of years asked the airport to display a menorah this year. Rabbi Bogomilsky said he initially received a positive response and then got the run-around. The rabbi said that when the matter stalled, he was called in. Reis, the airport manager, attributed the problem to a “bit of miscommunication” because the contractor had been speaking with the wrong person. By the time his request reached the proper people, it had already been decided that the holiday decorations would be “secular with no hint of Christian, Jewish or any other faith.”
“I did not deem it appropriate to introduce a menorah because I wanted it secular,” Reis said.After the trees were removed, Reis said he personally received “a wide variety of e-mails and most attacked me for bad decision-making. They were on both sides of the issue. Some thought it would have been simpler just to go along [and put up the menorah] and others thought we should be more confrontational. I am aware some of them included anti-Semitic remarks and we all deeply regret that.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest regional office issued a statement saying the Port of Seattle’s decision “and the adverse and incorrect publicity that followed has led to a surge of anti-Semitism, including hundreds of hate mail messages directed against the rabbi. … We are surprised that the Port of Seattle decided to remove the trees and to deny Chabad the right to display this menorah, rather than take this opportunity to demonstrate to the many new visitors to Seattle that we are a diverse, pluralistic and cosmopolitan city.”
Reis said he hoped to meet with Rabbi Bogomilsky and other community representatives in January to discuss next year’s holiday display. He said he would like to see “how we can design a holiday motif that provides a decoration for people to feel good about and that would be as inclusive of all appropriate faiths.”