Rabbi claims town took menorah down without warning

Permit paperwork came in too late, town officials say

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  • Photos by Mark Cranston Rabbi Mendy Gurkov of Chabad of Upper Passiac County presides at the lighting of a "spare" menorah he put together at the last minute after the town took the original one down.

  • People braved the frigid temperatures Wednesday night to attend the menorah lighting in front of town hall.

  • Photo provided Rabbi Mendy Gurkov poses for a selfie with Councilmen Tim Wagner, Lou Signorino and Pete McGuinness.

The head of a Jewish organization that has held Hanukkah celebrations in West Milford for several years is charging the town with illegally confiscating its menorah.

Rabbi Mendy Gurkov of the Chabad of Upper Passiac County told the Messenger that the group had planned to hold its annual event from 7-8 p.m. Wednesday, on the second night of Hanukkah.

Gurkov said that he was told around 1 p.m. that afternoon that the group needed a permit to hold the gathering, adding that they had never been required to have one in the past.

Nevertheless, he said, he faxed in the paperwork. At 4 p.m., he was told he was missing a crucial piece of information - the insurance certification. Meanwhile, he said, a friend called to tell him that the 9-foot menorah was missing.

Gurkov said he sent the certification in, and called Mayor Bettina Bieri around 4 p.m.

Gurkov said Bieri, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, inquired about the status of the paperwork via email and said she was looking forward to the event. But when they spoke by phone around 5:30 p.m., she told him that it was too late, the menorah had been taken down, the rabbi said.

"I couldn't believe it," Gurkov said, "Thank God I had an extra menorah."

Gurkov pressed ahead with plans, and "a nice crowd," including three town council members -- Tim Wagner, Lou Signorino and Pete McGuinness -- braved the frigid weather to attend the lighting of the spare menorah.

Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day "festival of lights", started on Dec. 12 and ends on the evening of Dec. 20.

Signorino said Thursday that he was happy that Gurkov was able to pull it off, but the "paperwork wasn't handled in a timely fashion."

A permit is always required whenever there's a gathering, both Wagner and Signorino said, the former adding: "because you don't know if it's going to be two, 10 or 1,000 people."

Wagner noted that the menorah lighting is

"a nice event that the township supports every year."

He chalked up the whole thing to a misunderstanding..

"Going forward we need better communication," he said.

Signorino noted that he has "always been supportive of people being able to express their beliefs" the township "ultimately wants to be inclusive."

The 9-foot menorah was replaced by town workers Thursday morning, because, town officials said, the permit was secured after the insurance certificate was received.

Gukov, calling the removal of the original menorah a "crime," said the town, nevertheless, should have called him before removing it only hours before the event.

Gukov said he planned to "make a full police report, stating that the menorah had been stolen," adding: "They should be ashamed of themselves."

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