BY NIRAJ WARIKOO
As the piano player jammed away, three generations of the Shemtov family danced and sang with joy inside a Jewish center in West Bloomfield last Sunday night.
It was the bar mitzvah of Levi Shemtov, the 13-year-old grandson of a Russian immigrant who moved to Detroit 50 years ago to start the Michigan branch of an Orthodox Jewish group, Chabad Lubavitch. Last month, the group garnered worldwide attention with the terrorist murders of two of its members at a Chabad house in Mumbai, India.
But despite those attacks, Chabad followers are determined to keep preaching their message of religious freedom, morality and compassion — especially during Hanukkah, which starts at sundown Sunday. The eight-day holiday recalls the triumph centuries ago of Jewish identity against oppression, a theme that truly resonates after the Mumbai attacks.
“Defy Darkness. Spread Light” read the display at the bar mitzvah inside the Shul, the main center for Chabad Lubavitch in metro Detroit. That theme was chosen by the boy’s father and the spiritual director of the center, Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, in light of the Mumbai killings.
And it’s a message that overlaps with the meaning of Hanukkah.
“A little bit of light can dispel darkness,” he said. “It can seem like such a dark world out there, but you have the power to light it up, one candle at a time.”
At his son’s bar mitzvah, three items were placed on each table for guests to take home: Sabbath candles for the weekly observance, Hanukkah candles for the upcoming holiday and a coin box for depositing money every day to donate to needy people.
“This is in honor of Mumbai,” Shemtov, 41, said, gesturing to the tables. “We have so much darkness — a Chabad house was destroyed, many lives were taken and our way of life is being threatened — so the answer is a candle, the answer is a Hanukkah menorah, the answer is to shine, to increase.”
That determination also will be seen Sunday in Farmington Hills, when hundreds of people are expected for the lighting of a giant menorah made of food cans that will be donated to a food bank. The event acts both as a mitzvah, or good deed, and as a celebration of the importance of holding true to one’s identity.
“The whole story of Hanukkah is one of religious freedom, where Jews were forced to give up their own way of life, but prevailed,” he said. “This is really the same thing that the terrorists are trying to do, stop our way of life.”
The menorah has become the worldwide symbol of Chabad — a glass image of it soars to the top of the West Bloomfield center, and the back of every wooden chair inside has a menorah imaged carved into it.
Chabad also is known for its public menorah lightings: The group has one near the White House. In metro Detroit, Levi Stein, 20, of West Bloomfield helped coordinate the building of the can menorah to be displayed in Farmington Hills.
In Mumbai during Hanukkah, the family of the slain rabbi will visit the Indian city to help light a menorah. And the 30th day after the rabbi’s death — an auspicious day for mourning in Judaism — falls during Hanukkah.
For two days during the Mumbai attacks, Shemtov could barely sleep. He knew the rabbi in Mumbai who was slain, Gavriel Holtzberg, and like other Chabad members was horrified by the siege as it unfolded on television and the Internet.
Baruch Davidson, 25, an Oak Park native, shared a cousin with Holtzberg; Davidson and Holtzberg had met in September 2007.
To Davidson and others, celebrating Hanukkah — which recalls how a small number of Jews defeated numerically superior armies — will have special meaning this year.
“The story of Hanukkah is the answer to what happened in Mumbai,” said Davidson, who attended the funeral in Israel of Holtzberg and his wife. “A few good men have the power to change the world for good and make the world a better place.”
Of the menorah made of cans and the attacks in Mumbai, Stein said: “The only way to respond to tragedy is by doing more good.”