Shin­ing light on Hanukkah

Bal­ti­more rab­bis use quirky meno­rahs to in­spire faith

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Jonathan M. Pitts

Rabbi Velvel Belin­sky says he’s al­ways look­ing for fresh ways to pro­mote the Jewish faith and its teach­ings.

He has hired men­tal­ists and hand­writ­ing ex­perts for par­ties at Ariel Jewish Cen­ter, a Rus­sian Jewish syn­a­gogue and com­mu­nity cen­ter he runs in Pikesville. He’s em­ceed a “Jewish Fam­ily Feud” game.

Then there was a gi­ant Hanukkah meno­rah made of yel­low bal­loons. Belin­sky and a friend fash­ioned an 8-foot ver­sion of the tra­di­tional hol­i­day can­de­labrum from party dec­o­ra­tions last year and, as funny as it looked, it be­came the main at­trac­tion of the big­gest hol­i­day party the cen­ter has ever thrown.

The rabbi used the oc­ca­sion to retell the history of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish hol­i­day that be­gins at sun­down Sun­day.

“En­ter­tain­ment can be a big part of ed­u­ca­tion,” he says.

When Belin­sky’s cen­ter reprises the bal­loon meno­rah this year, it won’t be the only nov­elty ver­sion of the sym­bolic lamp­stand on display in the Bal­ti­more area.

Hun­dreds are ex­pected to gather in McKeldin Square down­town at 4:30 p.m. Sun­day for the an­nual light­ing of a 30-foot, metal meno­rah that stands just 2 feet shy of be­ing the world’s tallest. As it’s one of the short­est days of the year, sun­set is at 4:47 p.m.

Out­side the Town House in Sykesville, a group of chil­dren af­fil­i­ated with Chabad of Car­roll County will light the first lamp on a 6-foot-tall meno­rah they made out of thou­sands of Lego pieces at a com­mu­nity party two weeks ago.

At Hunt Val­ley Towne Cen­tre, mem­bers of Chabad of Hunt Val­ley will un­veil an 8-foot meno­rah carved from blocks of ice, while on Sun­day morn­ing, ele­men­tary school stu­dents at Har­ford Chabad in Bel Air will cre­ate a choco­late meno­rah as part of a hol­i­day bash.

Rabbi Kushi Schus­ter­man of the Har­ford group said cer­tain de­tails were still up in the air (he was test­ing whether milk choco­late or dark choco­late could most eas­ily be melted over a metal can­de­labrum), but he ex­pected it to re­flect the hol­i­day’s mean­ing, as well as his goal of spread­ing and sup­port­ing Ju­daism in over­whelm­ingly non-Jewish Har­ford County.

“One of the rab­binic themes of the hol­i­day is spread­ing the Hanukkah mir­a­cle,” he said. “And if you’ve ever done any­thing in mar­ket­ing, you know that if you make some­thing bor­ing, it’s go­ing to be bor­ing. … Make it ex­cit­ing, and peo­ple will come out and en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence, thank God.”

Hanukkah, also known as the Fes­ti­val of Lights, com­mem­o­rates a sem­i­nal event in Jewish history. Nearly 2,200 years ago, a rul­ing body in Jerusalem dom­i­nated by the Syr­ian Greeks banned Ju­daism

and cap­tured the Jewish peo­ple’s most sa­cred site, the Sec­ond Tem­ple. A cadre of rebels, the Mac­cabees, even­tu­ally ousted their op­pres­sors and re­claimed and reded­i­cated the tem­ple. When they went to light cer­e­mo­nial lamps, it is said, they found just one day’s worth of oil, but the lights blazed for eight days and nights.

Jews cel­e­brate this mir­a­cle each win­ter by light­ing meno­rahs, can­de­labra built to hold nine can­dles — eight to mark the eight days and nights, and one to light them.

Orig­i­nally set in the win­dows of homes, meno­rahs have gen­er­ally been mod­est in size and made of metal or wood.

But in the early 1970s, the Ortho­dox Jewish move­ment known as Chabad-Lubav­itch be­gan push­ing the meno­rah en­ve­lope. Its famed rebbe, Me­nachem Sch­neer­son, pro­moted the cre­ation of “pub­lic meno­rahs” — over­sized ver­sions that could be lit as re­minders of the Hanukkah mir­a­cle and as a dec­la­ra­tion of re­li­gious free­dom.

The first was built in front of In­de­pen­dence Hall in Philadel­phia in 1974, the sec­ond a year later in San Fran­cisco. Chabad com­mu­ni­ties have cre­ated some 15,000 more around the world since then, in­clud­ing at the Eif­fel Tower, the Krem­lin and the Great Wall of China. Meno­rahs made of tiki torches and surf­boards have ap­peared in Hawaii and Cal­i­for­nia. New York is home to two 32-foot­ers. Meno­rahs are car­ried on river­boats in San An­to­nio and ele­phants’ backs in Thai­land.

The Bal­ti­more-area rab­bis help­ing cre­ate nov­elty meno­rahs are mem­bers of Chabad, too.

Belin­sky’s Ariel Cen­ter serves the Rus­sian Jewish com­mu­nity in the Bal­ti­more area, a group he num­bers at about 15,000 peo­ple.

Most em­i­grated to the United States af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, he says, and most lived un­der such re­li­gious op­pres­sion that “many Amer­i­can nonJews know more about the Jewish faith than they do.” Belin­sky says quirky ex­pe­ri­ences like cre­at­ing the bal­loon meno­rah — or stag­ing games such as “Jewish Wheel of For­tune,” which he’ll do at the fi­nal light­ing cer­e­mony of this Hanukkah on Dec. 29 — draw more peo­ple and en­hance the fun.

When Rabbi Sholly Co­hen and his wife, Feigie, moved to Sykesville to start Chabad of Car­roll County in 2012, they found a Jewish pop­u­la­tion of about 3,000, but no full-time rabbi and lit­tle com­mu­nity co­her­ence. The cen­ter runs Jewish ac­tiv­i­ties such as char­ity drives and chil­dren’s classes, and the com­mu­nity of faith is grow­ing.

Its Lego meno­rah will stand at the Sykesville Town House be­side a metal one “for grown-ups,” Co­hen says, sym­bols of the com­mu­nity’s present and fu­ture vi­tal­ity.

The ice meno­rah is like­wise part of Hunt Val­ley Chabad’s ef­fort to fos­ter com­mu­nity in north­ern Bal­ti­more County, and Schus­ter­man says the Bel Air choco­late party is aimed, like many Chabad ini­tia­tives, at the chil­dren who Jewish lead­ers hope will one day lead the faith.


Chil­dren from the Chabad Jewish Cen­ter of Car­roll County built a gi­ant meno­rah us­ing LEGO pieces, an idea of Rabbi Sholly Co­hen, pic­tured.

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