Did you catch the rabbi shooting hoops, swishing the ball perfectly from the free throw line? Or the impossibly tall former National Basketball Association small forward grapevining to the horah?
This is not the start of one of those jokes. Those things really happened during last year’s Chabad of Oregon-sponsored Trail Blazers’ basketball game that coincided with Hanukkah.
So popular was it, Chabad is putting on its third annual Hanukkah party—the largest in the Northwest—in partnership with the Blazers. Chabad is sponsoring the Dec. 15 basketball game in the Rose Garden that pits the Blazers against the Sacramento Kings. The pro teams will duke it out on the fifth night of the Jewish Festival of Lights.
Rabbi Chaim Shmaya Wilhelm, 23, has helmed this event three years running. As in years past, he’s securing a kosher hot dog stand, planning a rousing rendition of the horah and organizing a surprise give-away. Last year’s giveaway was a cap with “Blazers” emblazoned in Hebrew script. This year, the menorah will be lit during halftime in the arena; last year’s lighting ceremony—in which the Blazers’ former small forward Jerome Kersey took part—occurred in the concourse area.
“While it’s a lot of work coordinating all our special programming for the mid-December game, it’s so exciting to finally see all our Jewish fans having a blast together at Hanukkah Night,” Wilhelm said.
Sarah Mensah, the Trail Blazers’ chief marketing officer, said, “We invite fans to share the joy and festivity of their Hanukkah celebrations at the Rose Garden.” She continued, “We are pleased to host Hanukkah Night and participate in bringing families together throughout the holiday season to create lasting memories.”
“It’s a great event at which to celebrate Hanukkah and support Chabad,” said Nate Kramer, 49, who’s been to the Hanukkah game the past two years and this year will bring his entire family. “It’s a great event for the community to all come together to celebrate, and that’s something Chabad always promotes.”
And this year’s competition will be significant, too, for one of Sacramento’s ball players. Kings rookie Omri Casspi, a small forward, is the first Israeli selected in an NBA draft. While in town in early October for a pre-season game, he spent some time inside Chabad’s sukkah in Pioneer Courthouse Square during the fall festival of Sukkot, said Rabbi Motti Wilhelm, older brother of Chaim Shmaya and head of Congregation Beis Menachem-Chabad.
“This is an incredible way to communicate the spirit and meaning of Judaism to the Twitter generation,” Motti Wilhelm said. “With Casspi in the sukkah, I thought, ‘Here is a Jew who plays basketball, not just a basketball player who happens to be Jewish.’”
Jews from all across the religious and spiritual spectrum—from secular to very observant—have made it a point the past two years to attend the Chabad-sponsored basketball game, to celebrate both sport and Hanukkah. The Blazers game promises to be a big draw, often of Jews who don’t otherwise participate in Jewish life, Chaim Shmaya Wilhelm said.
Motti Wilhelm added, “Many young people wonder whether Judaism is current; Hanukkah at the Rose Garden is testimony that the Jewish soul and message are present even in today’s die-hard Blazers fans.”
Tickets are available for $17, $23 and $50 from Everything Jewish, 6684 SW Capitol Hwy., 503-246-5437; or online at tickets.trailblazers.com/deals, promotional code Chanukah.