As Rabbi Levi Shemtov looked over the crowd of nearly 500 people last December, he was “amazed” by the diversity of the group.
Not only were regular synagogue attendees there, so where people outside the Jewish faith, and even those who may not have been in a shul for a long while. Yet, here they all were, at the Riverdale Monument, to light a massive menorah there.
“I might not see them for any other Jewish holiday function, but they are there for the menorah lighting because they feel this is really what the message of Judaism is all about,” Shemtov said. “To bring light and to unify and feel that we are one family.”
This year’s celebration is planned for Sunday, Dec. 17 at 4 p.m., where West 238th Street meets Riverdale Avenue and the Henry Hudson Parkway. And once again, the Monument will sport the borough’s largest menorah at 23 feet, while marking the afternoon with live music and traditional food like hot latkes.
Hanukkah’s roots come from the Septuagint, when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated, but there was only enough kosher oil to keep the menorah lit for a day. The oil, however, ended up lasting eight days — just long enough for more kosher oil to be produced to keep the menorah lit.
“It’s a celebration of Jewish people that we were few and we were weak, and yet we were able to overpower the mighty and the many because God helped us,” Shemtov said. “Where there is darkness, a little bit of light can dispel the darkness. And, it was the light of the commitment of the Jewish people and the Maccabee, who were committed to overpowering their enemies.”
Although the Chabad begins lighting the menorah days earlier, having a local festivities on a Sunday makes sense to Shemtov.
“The last time I checked, everyone has off on Sunday,” the rabbi joked, adding the weekend date with live music gives many in the community the chance to join the celebration. “If we did the menorah lighting in a synagogue, I don’t think 500 people will come.”
While Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, there is a message in the story for everybody, Shemtov said.
“It’s the idea that we live in a time of darkness. And, we live in a time of challenges and we live in a time where there are many people who want to destroy us or hurt us,” he said. “The lights burning bright(ly) on the menorah is a message that light will always prevail, and good will always push away the evil.”
Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration, which includes the daily lighting of a menorah and special prayers.
One candle is lit each night beginning Dec. 12, and continuing through Dec. 20.
The Chabad, which has had festivities at the Monument for more than 20 years, will light the menorah between Dec. 12 and Dec. 14 at 4 p.m., as well as on Friday, Dec. 15 at 3 p.m., and Dec. 16 at 6:30 p.m., to accommodate Shabbat.
The spirit and meaning of Hanukkah go beyond its eight days, Shemtov said, extending to all faiths.
“Whenever a human being has the confidence and the self-esteem to be kind and giving to help one individual or two individuals and bring a little more kindness and bring a little more light,” the rabbi said, “that is the story of Hanukkah.”