A blue Lego piece clutched in his chubby fingers, Zhak Goldemberg-Levy, just 21 months old, built a menorah with a little help from his grandfather Liviu Goldemberg at Chabad of Hawaii’s Chanukah celebration. Later, Hawaii’s Jewish Governor Linda Lingle lit a ten-foot-tall, 5,000-piece Lego menorah at Waikiki’s Gateway Park.
Chabad of Hawaii’s recipe of child-friendly activities, a creative jumbo menorah, and a public figure to light it typified this year’s framework for Chabad-Lubavitch Chanukah celebrations. Spin a globe, plant a finger on a random spot, and there’s likely to be one of Chabad’s 11,000 public menorahs within reach.
Grabbing spotlights for Chanukah menorahs may not sound like a very Jewish thing to do, but it is actually the point. Striking a match and lighting the menorah is expressly for the purpose of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah when a day’s worth of oil lasted eight days, after a band of Jews emerged victorious over a mighty Syrian-Greek army. Chabad chooses to publicize the miracle where the public’s interests lie. In Houston, for instance, Monday night football got personal when 1992 Super Bowl champ Alan Veingard, a former Dallas Cowboy offensive lineman, lit the menorah at Chabad Lubavitch Center’s Chanukah gathering.
Pages of Jewish legal code spell out exactly the look, location and lighting technique of a menorah in order for the holiday miracle to be publicized in the right way. A menorah cannot be more than 30 feet tall, for example, because a regular passerby is unlikely to gaze any higher. So American Friends of Lubavitch’s menorah stood exactly 30 feet tall on the White House Ellipse in Washington, D.C. and was lit by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
In Thailand, ten days before the commemoration of last year’s Tsunami disaster, Princess Sri Rasmi accepted a menorah from Chabad of Thailand at a ceremony held to honor the writing of a new Torah there. The menorah, said Chabad’s representative in Thailand Rabbi Yosef C. Kantor is “symbolic of the great light and peace that we are fortunate to enjoy in this Royal Kingdom of Thailand.”
Because Chanukah landed smack dab in the crux of this year’s December holiday season, there were unique and paradoxical forces at work this year. On the one hand, Jews were compelled to seek out Jewish activities. Chabad Lubavitch groups in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia hosted eleven days of Chanukah with a wonderland of activities like a multimedia dreidel house filled with games and craft workshops. “Particularly this year that the Chanukah holiday coincides precisely with the general holiday season,” Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, director of programs for Chabad of Maryland, said, “we felt it was very necessary to provide parents with an exciting Jewish alternative for their children.”
But overlapping dates were also a challenge. With holiday parties piled upon the obligation to give a gift to every last person in the universe, Chabad centers around the world tapped deep creative veins to attract huge crowds. Balloon rockets, balloon typhoons, balloon sculptures and a 12-foot balloon menorah inflated the numbers attending Chabad of Rivertowns’s Chanukah celebration in Dobbs Ferry, NY. Chanukah on Ice skating events were held in Northwest Metro Denver and Contra Coast, CA, among other places. In Northwest Metro Denver, the skaters stood to watch a 3 foot tall, 300 lbs ice menorah being lit. Children pinned the flame on the menorah, tossed traditional Chanukah gelt, got their faces painted at Chabad of Tallahassee’s Chanukah Carnival. Openly celebrating Chanukah is a tribute to religious freedom in the United States, said Chabad of Tallahassee representative Rabbi Schneur Oirechman “Two thousand years ago, Jews had to hide to practice their Judaism. The message of Chanukah is freedom of religion. You can practice what you believe in in public.”
Last minute shoppers at Solomon Pond Mall in Marlborough, MA, upped their calorie counts in celebration of Chanukah at Chabad of Westboro’s Chocolate Factory. Fearing a crush of menorah gazers would cut into mall traffic flow, the Paseo Colorado Mall in Pasadena, CA, had moved to pull Chabad of Pasasdena’s menorah. An outpouring of support for the Chanukah display convinced mall officials to permit the menorah. “We are grateful for the overwhelming support we’ve received from across our community, and from people of all faiths,” said Rabbi Chaim Hanoka, director of Chabad of Pasadena. “Chanukah carries a universal message of light and freedom, and we appreciate the efforts of the Paseo Colorado Mall to bring this beautiful message back to its shoppers.”
Big bashes and bold moves Chabad style, netted headlines and spotlights the world over. On NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brian, Jerry Stiller plugged Latke Larry, a Chabad-produced mechanical doll that sings like Stiller is garbed like a cross between Julia Child and a Chabad rabbi. Proceeds from Latke Larry support Chabad’s Friendship Circle activities for Jewish children with special needs.
Yet, the real story of Chabad celebrating Chanukah came at the private, more personal moments. The ones that happen between the paragraphs, behind the flashing lights. In Sarasota, FL, Chabad representative Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz took his children to visit Abe Abraham, 76, who suffered a minor stroke before Chanukah. “I love these kids,” Abraham said when the Steinmetzes visited. “My whole body jumped up when I saw these kids.”
It’s a good thing Chanukah lasts eight days. And that’s hardly enough time for Chabad Lubavitch to get it all in.