NEWTOWN, PA. — Lisa Keeling was confident about her suburban neighbors' reaction to the menorah in her window - the one right beside her Christian family's Christmas decorations.
It's the rest of the nation that surprised her.
Mrs. Keeling led a charge against a neighborhood hate crime that occurred before dawn on Dec. 8, the third day of Hanukkah, when three teenagers allegedly smashed the front window of Judith and Martin Markovitz's home and destroyed a menorah that had been shining there.
In a sign of solidarity, Keeling and neighbor Margie Alexander put menorahs in their windows and scoured the town to find 16 more to give to friends. Others in the mostly Christian neighborhood bought and displayed their own. If stores hadn't run out, many more homes in this town, 25 miles north of Philadelphia, might have glowed with the purposeful incongruity of Nativity scenes beside menorahs. "I just knew this neighborhood would do this. But to be proven correct was an incredible feeling," Ms. Alexander says. "I was incredibly proud."
For days afterward, as word spread, Keeling was inundated with phone calls and a flurry of mail. "The first call I got was from Gainesville, Fla.," the former military police officer and mother of two says. She describes a Jewish woman sitting in tears outside her granddaughter's school. The woman called from a cellular phone after reading a story about Newtown's menorahs.
"I just couldn't believe it went national like that," she says. "Then the calls just started coming and coming and coming. I don't have call waiting, so I'd hang up and it'd ring again."
Then came the letters. From Albany, N.Y. From Spring Hill, Fla. From everywhere. One letter was addressed merely: "To Ms. Keeling, friends of the Markovitz family, Newtown, Pa." Keeling has started a scrapbook to collect all the holiday greeting cards and letters, including a "thank you" from the Anti-Defamation League. Some people have even sent checks, which Keeling forwarded to the ADL.
The incident has carried echoes of a similar holiday season three years ago in Billings, Mont., where a group of "skinheads" hurled cinder blocks through the windows of some of the city's 48 Jewish families. Within days, thousands of homes displayed menorahs in their windows. When city stores ran out of menorahs, the Billings Gazette published a full-page picture of a menorah and asked that residents and businesses display it. The incident inspired Janice Cohn, a New Jersey psychotherapist and author, to write a children's book, "The Christmas Menorahs - How a Town Fought Hate."
"Basically, what the town was saying was: An act of hate against one of us will be considered an act of hate toward all of us," Ms. Cohn says. "And what happened was, the acts of hate eventually stopped."
She says Newtown "shows that, as a town, if we stay together, we can make a difference."
A few days after the menorahs began going up in Newtown, and word spread of the attack against the Markovitzes, three seniors at nearby Council Rock High School were arrested. They face charges of ethnic intimidation, possessing instruments of crime (the bat used to smash the window), loitering and prowling, and criminal mischief.
The way the town has pulled together makes residents here feel as if they're part of a Frank Capra movie, on a modern set. Upscale and growing rapidly, Newtown is a bedroom community of 1,700. Main Street is lined with older shops. But on the edge of the town, where the Markovitzes live, new developments are sprouting up.
"It's going to have a positive impact on our community for years to come," says Police Chief Martin Duffy. "It came as a shock to all of us. I hope it serves as a lesson to other towns to stick up for your neighbors, no matter what their religious affiliation or the color of their skin or whatever."
The last day of Hanukkah was Dec. 13, so most of Newtown's menorahs are gone. But Keeling and Alexander - sitting in a living room one recent evening - say the holiday season of 1996 will have a lasting impact on their neighborhood, which stood communally against a bully. "I think it sent a message all over the world that you can't do something like this and have it go unpunished," Keeling says, with her three-month-old daughter in her lap. "Maybe somebody who was thinking about going down this path will think again."