Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights that begins tonight, is a private affair for most Jews.
At home, with the children taking a lead role, families will light a small candelabra, or menorah, and say a blessing. Some may place the menorah, with its slender, quick burning candles, beside the window for outsiders to see. These gatherings, often accompanied by traditional fried foods such as potato pancakes and jelly-filled doughnuts, are for the most part intimate and cozy.
But Hanukkah is writ large for an Orthodox Hasidic movement known as the Chabad. This small Jewish segment is known for making big, bold statements about the holiday’s miraculous ability to dispel darkness with light.
No menorah is too small and no public official too insignificant to receive an invitation to help light it.
In the Triangle there are four Chabad rabbis, and each one is doing his share to help erect prominent public displays of the of holiday’s central symbol.
In Raleigh, there are the 9-foot menorah outside of Sears in Crabtree Valley Mall and another outside the Sha’arei Israel Congregation on Falls of Neuse Road. In the Durham-Chapel Hill area, Rabbi Zalman Bluming has so far put up seven – not counting the one outside his Chapel Hill home.
“We’re proudly sharing the light and warmth of Jewish values to all mankind,” Bluming said. “The world becomes richer when we share the light.”
Bluming said he has gotten overwhelmingly positive response to the public menorahs – usually situated on private property. That hasn’t always been the case. The Chabad organization, based in Brooklyn, has gone as far as the U.S. Supreme Court to plead the case for public menorahs on public property. In 1989, the court allowed a 45-foot menorah outside Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Courthouse.
The ones in Durham and Chapel Hill are smaller but no less prominent. There’s one at the corner of Estes and Franklin, one at UNC Chapel Hill’s Pit, one in the lobby of Duke Hospital.
Yaakov Ariel, a professor of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, said one reason Hanukkah is so central to Chabad is because of its zeal to bring Jews back to tradition.
“They’re evangelists,” said Ariel. “They’re interested in outreach.”
Bluming put it differently. One of the biggest sources for social alienation today is that people’s lives are fragmented, he said. The public menorah, he said, allows Jews to claim their faith on the outside as well as within.
On Thursday night, Bluming invited UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp to his house for a mock Hanukkah lighting since the holiday begins tonight. In the past he has invited mayors and other public officials.
A public menorah is a chance for Jews to declare “I am who I am wherever I am,” Bluming said.
“It’s not allowing us to be divided.”