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Broward rabbis ask sheriff to allow lit Hanukkah menorahs in jails

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald

Tuesday is the third night of Hanukkah — but Jewish inmates in Broward County jails will have to celebrate the holiday without a lit menorah.

That’s because the Broward Sheriff’s Office doesn't allow the menorah to be lit with a real flame inside county jails.

Rabbi Shmaya Waks joined more than 20 other rabbis in a letter to Sheriff Gregory Tony urging him to reconsider.

“This holiday is the holiday of light and warmth. That's why it has to be a live fire. These people who are incarcerated are in the darkest place and in the coldest place physically and spiritually, mentally," Waks, a Fort Lauderdale Rabbi, said. "What it means to a Jew when he sees the Hanukkah candles — you can't imagine it."

In a response sent to the county commission, Sheriff Tony says that it isn’t up to him, but instead the fire marshals in the cities where the jails are located — Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach.

"Each year, the jail is requested to reconsider its decision and allow the use of an open flame within the jail facilities to light a menorah and is threatened with political pressure if that decision does not change," Tony's letter read.

"However, these decisions cannot be based on political expedience. The decision on any request for a religious accommodation must be based solely upon considerations of the safety and security of the staff and the inmates housed in the jail facilities."

The sheriff also suggested the inmates could use an electric menorah. Rabbi Waks says anything less than a live flame would violate Jewish law. "There are laws to the exact oil, to the exact candle or type of wax etc.," Waks said. "You have to have a live fire."

Florida state prisons and Miami-Dade County jails allow a live flame menorah.

The rabbis argued that BSO could be violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which forbids unnecessary limits on religious practice in prisons.

Sheriff Tony said he checked with his staff and "is confident that its use comports with all legal requirements for the accommodation of religious practices within a jail setting.”

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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