A light, freezing rain had driven nearly everyone underneath the protective awning attached to the Independence Mall Visitors Center. Awaiting the kindling of the 37-foot-tall menorah – which sat next to a scene of the three Magi put up by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia – folks began dancing the hora to Chanukah melodies supplied by a nearby keyboardist.
Lois Yampolsky, an administrative assistant at the Lubavitcher Center in Northeast Philadelphia, passed out latkes and jelly doughnuts to the 40 or so people who had gathered Sunday night for the group's 31st annual public menorah-lighting ceremony in Philadelphia. The majority of the ceremonies have taken place at Independence Mall.
"Unfortunately, you don't have any control over the weather," she said, adding that the spirit of the holiday could not be dampened.
Truth be told, the weather didn't deter Randy Landman. The avid camper said she and her husband have spent many nights in rain-soaked tents.
"This is great; it's all about community," she said, looking up at the menorah, adding that her two grandchildren had actually gotten tired and were sleeping in the car.
Neither Sleet nor Snow …
Menachem Schmidt, who heads the Lubavitch House of Philadelphia, explained that over the years, the menorah-lighting has taken place during snow, bitter-cold temperatures and, yes, rain.
The ceremony goes on undeterred, he said, because performing mitzvot associated with the festival of lights involves spreading the story of the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks roughly 2,300 years ago, and of the miraculous eight-day burning of the olive oil inside the First Temple.
He added that Jews traditionally displayed their menorah outside of the home, and that it is largely an American phenomena to light them inside.
"Chanukah reminds us of the importance of light," said Rabbi Zalman Lipsker during a short program before the candle-lighting. "Chanukah is the time that Am Yisroel celebrates the true light that God gave us in the Torah. May we learn that a little light drives away a lot of darkness."
Pedro Ramos, the city's managing director, drew attention to the fact that the giant menorah faced Independence Hall, where America's founders drafted and signed the Constitution, setting the stage for religious pluralism and freedom in the United States.
"We feel blessed that we add a little more physical light, and hope and pray for the enlightenment of the entire world," said Ramos, who was joined at the event by outgoing City Controller Jonathan Saidel.
Luckily, the rain had stopped by the time the speeches had ended. In addition, the "bucket" truck had arrived, a city utility vehicle complete with a hydraulic lift. Mel Rosenberg, a Philadelphia jeweler and contributor to Lubavitch, had the honor of riding in the bucket and igniting the candles.
"Careful, we don't have insurance," Saidel quipped as Rosenberg rose into the air.
Mendel Weber, 6, recited the blessings as Rosenberg ignited the gas lamps used for the ceremony. For the rest of the holiday, the menorah will function as an electric one, albeit slightly overgrown.