By Charlotte Observer & Earn Miles
On the third night of Hanukkah 2009, dozens of Jewish children learned the meaning of “tzedakah” in a big way – as in an 8-foot-tall menorah with its eight wood-and-Plexiglas arms filled to the top with coins to give to the needy.
Since September, the coins were collected mostly by children from eight Jewish organizations, each versed in the duty of giving charity (tzedakah), one of Judaism’s most important commandments.
The menorah’s lighting Sunday at dusk at SouthPark mall marked the 24th time since 1985 that Lubavitch of North Carolina has ushered in the holiday in a very visible way.
In past years, they’ve crafted menorahs of ice or Legos and built one with cans of food to give to the poor.
This year, the coins – about $4,000 worth – will be split equally between Jewish Family Services and Crisis Assistance Ministry.
With thousands out of work, the beauty of Hanukkah couldn’t have found a more profound gesture.
“It’s meant to bring the message home that one cannot just focus on one’s own spiritual life, without caring about others,” said Rabbi Yossi Groner, senior rabbi at Ohr HaTorah, Charlotte’s orthodox synagogue.
“At Hanukkah, we are obligated to light the candles – and to give to charity and share with others.”
Struggle, and survival
The holiday is one of the most popular among Jews, not just because of the time of year but because of what it represents: A monumental struggle and miraculous survival for the soul of Judaism.
Its eight days mark the length of time a one-day supply of oil lasted in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem more than 2,300 years ago. The Syrians had desecrated the ancient temple in hopes of stamping out the practice of Judaism.
But the oil lasted long enough for the Maccabeans to repair and rededicate the temple.
So on Hanukkah, Jews around the world note the symbolic power of lighting a candle each night until all eight candles – and a ninth that is the helper candle – stand lit atop the menorah.
The candlelabra is usually placed in a window for non-Jews to see that Judaism survives. That is why Ohr HaTorah has held its menorah lightings in public places, on Sunday at SouthPark’s well-traveled Circle Court in the shadow of Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.
Gifts of ‘light and warmth’
The giant candelabra was designed by engineer Brad Rabinowitz, an Ohr HaTorah member who built it in his garage.
He said it would hold 32 gallons of coins, or 193,239 pennies. The coin collection of mostly pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters was begun in September by Temple Israel and Temple Beth El religious schools, Ohr HaTorah Talmud Torah, The Charlotte Jewish Day School, Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, the Jewish Preschool on Sardis, the Charlotte Jewish Preschool and the Friendship Circle.
“It’s a lovely moment for the Jewish community to come together for this,” Rabbi Judy Schindler said at Sunday’s ceremony.
In Jen Lahn’s preschool class at Jewish Preschool on Sardis, the 106 students were assigned to make tzedakah boxes and start filling them with coins.
“We teach our children to give tzedakah every day,” Lahn said. “They are excited; they know that their money is going to help people in Charlotte.”
About 350 people surrounded the menorah for the 6 p.m. lighting. Children played games, and the group sang songs. To the end, people brought jars and sandwich bags of coins to place inside.
Groner was clearly pleased with the turnout. “In this hard economy, there are a lot of people in need,” he said. “There is no better way to celebrate Hanukkah than to give light and warmth to those who need help.”