Eternal light shines as a symbol of community togetherness
More than two years ago, a member of the Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ had an epiphany – she was struck with the idea to present a gift to the church and the Bat Yam Temple of the Islands that was representative of the unique relationship the two congregations share.
In the courtyard between the two places of worship, Sally Hanser wanted to place a beacon, both symbolically and literally, that would illustrate — and illuminate — the special connection between people of different faiths and the community they share.
A brilliant idea
Hanser, who has curious and keen eye for design elements, recalls visiting a client’s house and, as she was coming through the front entrance of the home, she noticed an object hanging over the woman’s door.
“I asked her what it was, and she said it was a mezuzah, an object that many Jewish families put over their doors to bless the people that come in and out of the home,” Hanser said.
The idea of the mezuzah stuck with Hanser — she later found out that Bat Yam gave the Sanibel Congregational UCC a mezuzah for the church — and one day, when she was having dinner with her husband Al and some friends, she told them about her new fixation with the mezuzah.
Strangely enough, one of the Hansers’ friends, June Patinkin, said she had just returned from Israel with two or three mezuzahs and she was looking for people to give them to.
“The Lord is so good the way He works,” Hanser said. “She offered me one of the mezuzahs and I told her I would be honored to accept it.”
The Hansers hung their mezuzah over the entrance of the white gazebo at their home, which they refer to as the “Prayer Porch.” Inside the gazebo, a cross hangs, but anyone is invited to visit the Hansers’ Prayer Porch, whether to pray or just to reflect.
A few months after Hanser received her mezuzah, she and Al were in Minneapolis meeting with friends who happen to be Jewish.
“I was telling them this story about the mezuzah — I’d also mentioned that the Congregational Church shares their facilities with Bat Yam — and one of them asked us if we had ever heard of an eternal light. I said no and he explained it to me,” Hanser said. “I was just fascinated by that and it stayed in my head for a long time. Then, I woke up one morning and I told my husband, ‘I know what we’re supposed to do — we’re to give an eternal light to the Congregational Church and the Bat Yam communities.'”
Truthfully, Hanser noted, just because the idea of a gift of an eternal light came through her, she wields no ownership over the final product. It’s something for people of all faiths.
“I really have to say, the sculpture wasn’t my idea, which to me is even more exciting. It had nothing to do with me. I was just used in the creation of it. The Eternal Light is open to anybody who wants to come and pray there, to center themselves or just to see it. It’s a gift to the community to bring them together and I hope it will draw people from all walks of life — Sanibel is such a reflection of that.”
The Eternal Light
Excited by this new idea, Hanser told Ran Niehoff, the Sanibel Congregational UCC minister at the time, who told Murray Saltzman, Bat Yam’s rabbi at the time, and both were thrilled with the concept.
“The Hansers were looking for a way in which to provide a symbol of both congregations that they would share and, in its very existence, convey the message of mutual care and love that both congregations are
based on, both between each other and with the world at large,” Niehoff said.
“Light is an old, old Biblical symbol and it also happens to be an old Jewish tradition,” Niehoff said. “The Jewish temple that was built by Solomon in Jerusalem before Jesus appeared was reported to have a continuous burning light to represent the continuous burning of creation. After the temple was destroyed by the Romans, synagogues had an eternal light too and they kept it near the Torah. Of course, the most recognizable symbol of light in Jewish tradition is the menorah, the seven branched candelabra which stands for the seven efforts by which the creator spirit brought into being the world.
“As the early Christian church developed, out of its Jewish roots it took two candles and lamps and placed them in front of where they gathered and called them the Christ candles — symbolic of the presence of the Messiah as both a human and the representative of the Creator. The continuously burning light represents the continuously burning light of creation.“
So, how do you fit 3,000 years of history into a symbol that speaks no words?
“That’s when we went to Luc,” Niehoff said.
Renowned island glass artist Luc Century enthusiastically accepted the challenge.
“Luc is a treasure of the islands and we love his work,” said Al Hanser. “It was a challenge for him at first because the light had to be eternal — it couldn’t be something plugged into the wall that would go when the electricity went out. We didn’t want a lot of drama around it and we thought it should be plain and simple and Luc found the perfect design.“
After working through three or four concepts, Century settled on a cylindrical piece of glass, approximately 20 inches tall and etched with sea oats, with a light powered by a solar panel.
“I didn’t want to do the typical flame concept,” Century said. “I was looking for an island motif that would take the place of the flame, and Sea oats reminded me of a flame, the way they sway back and forth.“
Niehoff said that the sea oats also represent a protective element, something that’s important to fragile barrier islands such as Sanibel and Captiva. “Sea oats fortify our shores…and there the light burns, steady and sure even at night, protected by the sea oats.“
Lighting the way
Century placed the Eternal Light sculpture just over six months ago and said that since then, the sculpture has withstood the test — and weather patterns — of time.
Situated in a concave nook in the courtyard between the meeting places of the congregations of Bat Yam and Sanibel Congregational, the sculpture adds a spiritual element, shining brightly amidst the trickling water fall and the trellises dripping with lush green leaves that already occupy the stone labyrinth.
Century remembered a particular moment when, as he was working on the sculpture, the project became much more than just a creative journey.
“I was here during one of the Bat Yam services and it was dark outside and very peaceful and there was a slight mist hanging over the labyrinth. The cantor was singing and I heard him through the speakers in the courtyard and it was just so beautiful and so magical,” Century said. “I was kind of polishing the stone and the glass and this angelic voice was coming over me and I just felt totally at peace and at one. It was a moment where I felt that it all came together for me and I hope that others can feel it too.“
After Hanser presented her initial idea to Niehoff, he and Saltzman sat down and began discussing the concept of light and its role in both Judaism and Christianity. Based on their discussions, Niehoff later penned the words now engraved on a dedication plaque beside the sculpture.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Saltzman passed away earlier this year, but his wife Esther said that the sculpture will always represent a special connection between friends of all faiths.
“I think it’s really a very lovely gesture,” Saltzman said. “Ran and Murray really loved each other, and whenever I see the sculpture, it will be a reminder of the wonderful relationship between the rabbi and the minister and of both congregations.“
The Eternal Light sculpture, located between the Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ and the Bat Yam Temple of the Islands at 2050 Periwinkle Way, is available for viewing to anyone, anytime — but there will be a special dedication ceremony for the Hanser’s gift of the Eternal Light on Sanibel Luminary Night, Friday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend.