Bringing light into darkness: Public menorahs throughout Baltimore area seen as symbols of hope for Hanukkah

Outside a volunteer firehouse in northern Baltimore County, dozens of people will gather Sunday night for a ceremony that brings to life an old Jewish proverb: A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.

Shalom Zirkind, an Orthodox rabbi, will preside over the lighting of a 12-foot-tall menorah as the annual Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins at sundown.

It is believed to be the first public menorah lighting north of the Beltway in Baltimore County — and the latest example of an increasingly popular practice that brings celebration of the Festival of Lights outdoors and into the public square.

Zirkind expects the evening to carry an appropriately outsize message, coming as it does in a year marked by an increase in faith-related hate crime in the United States, including the horrific mass shooting that left 11 people dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October.

Hanukkah commemorates a special event in Jewish history, but in a larger sense, Zirkind says, it signifies hope during times of trouble.

“The message of Hanukkah can be found in that old saying, ‘Darkness isn’t pushed away with a broom,’ ” he says. “The only way to combat senseless hate is with senseless love. The only way to combat darkness is with light. We’ll be letting light shine on Sunday.”

The lighting of the candles in the nine-branched candelabras called menorahs is the central rite of Hanukkah, the eight-day holiday on the Jewish calendar that commemorates seemingly miraculous events that took place nearly 2,200 years ago.

Around 160 B.C., leaders of the mighty Syrian-Greek empire ordered the looting of the Jews’ most sacred place of worship, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and banned the practice of their faith.

These acts of repression sparked a revolt on the part of a cadre of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, who defeated their powerful oppressors and reclaimed and rededicated the temple.

If that weren’t miracle enough, Jewish scripture says that when the victorious rebels attempted to light candles in the temple, they found only enough olive oil to last for a day, but the flames burned for eight days. That is remembered in the eight days of the holiday and eight of the candles in the ceremonial menorah. (The ninth, the shamash, is used to light the others, from one on the first night to eight on the last.)

For centuries thereafter, Jews lit small menorahs and placed them outside the front entrances to their homes every Hanukkah in celebration of the miracles.

As the generations passed, though, and Jews were repeatedly forced to live among people hostile to their faith, most brought the menorahs indoors “out of fear for their own lives,” says Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland, the state chapter of a worldwide movement whose mission is to preserve, share and teach the traditions of the Jewish faith.

The lighting of menorahs in public spaces didn’t come about until the 1970s, Kaplan says, when Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, then the powerfully influential director of Chabad-Lubavitch, decided it was time for Jews to stop concealing their religious practices and bring them into the open.

He initiated the first such event in 1974, when a handful of his followers fashioned a 4-foot menorah of wood and lit the candles in front of that enduring symbol of American freedom, Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The tradition grew, as did the menorahs themselves. Concert promoter Bill Graham, a Holocaust survivor, donated a 22-footer for a public lighting in Union Square in San Francisco, and in 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter lit the shamash of a jumbo menorah on the White House lawn.

Some of the more prominent annual lightings now take place in Washington, where the so-called National Menorah has been lit annually since 1979; at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side in New York, where the 2-ton, 32-foot menorah is said to be the world’s largest; and at such international landmarks as the House of Commons in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow.

It was Kaplan who brought the tradition to Baltimore in 2010 when he climbed onto a cherry-picker to light a 30-foot menorah in McKeldin Square at the Inner Harbor. The move inaugurated the first Grand Menorah Lighting and Hanukkah Celebration, an event featuring cantorial singing as well as traditional latkes, jelly doughnuts, hot drinks and games that has drawn hundreds of people, including mayors and governors, every year since.

That menorah is the largest of the many that will be lit in public ceremonies in Maryland this year — Kaplan will again preside the first night — and one of about 15,000 Chabad officials say they provide worldwide.

Zirkind’s effort might seem small in comparison, but it’s an extension of the mission he and his wife, Nuchie, have been on since 2015: spreading the word about Chabad of Northern Baltimore County, the Jewish activity center they founded in that region three years ago Sunday. Zirkind says the center is the first Jewish institution in the 11-mile stretch between Pikesville and the Loch Raven Reservoir.

The couple's work began slowly, as they held meetings and dinners and celebrated holidays in the living rooms of homes from Lutherville to Hunt Valley.

Last May, the center — the 20th Chabad center in Maryland — set up permanent shop in a five-bedroom home in Cockeysville.

Zirkind has expanded his constituency by reaching out via social media and staging events that focus on fun — like the menorah-building workshop that 150 people enjoyed at a Home Depot this year.

Sunday’s event at Baltimore County Fire Station No. 39, home of the Cockeysville Volunteer Fire Department, will feature a new tradition that has proved popular over the past decade: a “Gelt Drop.”

It is customary for Jewish adults to give children money (“gelt” in Yiddish) or chocolate gelt (candy coins wrapped in gold foil) for the holiday. For the “drop,” organizers will climb to the top of a firetruck and toss down hundreds of the treats for children, as others have done in locations from San Diego to Boston since about 2010.

Celebrators will then head inside for traditional food, hot drinks and games.

Zirkind says the menorah, a 60-pound aluminum structure with an 8 1/2-foot wingspan, arrived in the mail equipped with LED lights, so he sent away for a “candle conversion kit” so real flames can burn.

His grandparents, he notes, would never have been able to enjoy such a ceremony. They lived in Russia during the early 20th century, one of many periods of systemic oppression against Jews.

Freedom of religion is a bedrock right in America, he says, one everyone should exercise, whether Jewish or not, particularly during times when it appears to be under threat.

“The menorah is a symbol of this country’s dedication to preserve and encourage the liberty of every citizen to worship God freely, openly, and with pride,” Zirkind says. “Now more than ever, the message of Hanukkah is the message of light. Even a small act of goodness and kindness, another act of light, can make all the difference.”

Public menorah lightings

» McKeldin Square, downtown Baltimore, Sunday, Dec. 2, 4:45 p.m.

» Cockeysville Fire Station, Cockeysville, Sunday, Dec. 2, 4 p.m.

» Shamrock Park, Lee Way and Hickory Ave., Bel Air, Sunday, Dec. 2, 5:15 p.m.

» River Hill Village Center, Clarksville, Monday, Dec. 3, 6:30 p.m.

» Harford Chabad, 15 N. Bond St., Bel Air, Monday, Dec. 3 , 5:30 p.m.

» Peterson Courtyard at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Thursday, Dec. 6, 1 p.m.

» City Dock, Annapolis, Thursday, Dec. 6, 6 p.m.

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