On a blustery Tuesday night last week, Jewish Philadelphians began to gather and light their menorahs for the first night of Chanukah.
But while most lightings took place in the warmth of individuals’ homes, the city was not devoid of events drawing those braving the elements to light menorahs large — and abstract — in some of the most unusual of places.
Kicking off the holiday on Dec. 12, a group gathered at the Fairmount Fish Ladder to hear remarks from community leaders, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia President and CEO Naomi Adler and Mayor Jim Kenney as Boathouse Row was lit as a “menorah” for the second year in a row.
One house shined in white as a shamash candle while another twinkled in blue, serving as the first “candle.” Subsequent candle lightings took place each night until the end of the holiday, when all the houses were lit up in blue.
“Boathouse Row is such an iconic image for us as Philadelphians,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation in an interview with CBS after the event. “Everybody can see it each night as they’re driving by on West River Drive or the Schuylkill, they’ll be able to look over and see the beautiful menorah right here on Boathouse Row.”
She noted the Row will also have light displays for Christmas and Kwanzaa in the coming weeks.
A short walk away, a group gathered at the base of the Art Museum of Philadelphia’s iconic steps to nosh on latkes and sufganiyot, sing songs and prayers, and light the menorah with Chabad of Fairmount.
“We started a couple months ago doing Jewish programs here in the neighborhood,” said Shevy Sputz, co-director with her husband, Rabbi Hirshi Sputz. They held High Holiday services and, for Chanukah, organized what she believed was the first menorah lighting in front of the Art Museum.
Children danced and ran around as tunes like the Maccabeats’ Hamilton Chanukah parody played and guests mingled by the light of the menorah.
“The idea is to spread as much light as we can get into this world, especially on Chanukah with the miracle of the menorah,” Sputz said. “It’s really about the everlasting light and every single person bringing their light into the world.”
On Dec. 16, the Ben Franklin Parkway was filled with a different kind of traffic: 150-plus menorah-topped cars participating in what was billed as the World’s Largest Car Menorah Parade, organized by Lubavitch of Greater Philadelphia.
The celebration on the fifth night of Chanukah continued at the base of a giant menorah in front of the National Constitution Center, where a special guest, the new Phillies manager, Gabe Kapler, gave a short speech to the crowd emphasizing the power of community and a recent family visit to Israel. Children played in a big tent and enjoyed cotton candy, popcorn and face painting.
“It was actually phenomenal,” enthused Lois Yampolsky, who helped organize the event.
She estimated more than 800 people were at the event, which culminated in the lighting of the menorah, a years-long tradition at Independence National Park. As he’s done in years past, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who is believed to be the first person to publicly light a menorah at the historic site, kindled the flame.
“It’s a very powerful scene, with all that’s going on and all the bigotry and here’s hundreds of cars coming down the street with lit menorahs. It’s so powerful. It shows strength,” said Yampolsky.
“What you saw … was a unity of Jewish people,” she added. “It wasn’t just Orthodox. It was Conservative, it was Reform — that’s what I thought was nice, that no matter what it was just all Jews came together for that night.”
Rabbi Tzvi Altein, co-director of Chabad of Delaware County, brought a small group of 11- to 13-year-olds with him from the preteen group the organization runs.
“We felt that it would be exciting for them to participate in something like this,” he said, noting a parade of that size and nature isn’t something they necessarily would see at home. “It was beautiful, it was great. It always is.”
For him, the parade represents an opportunity to spread the message of Chanukah far and wide.
“One of the ideas of Chanukah is to spread the light,” he said, noting the Chabad also had its own menorah lighting at Media Courthouse on the first night of the holiday, with councilpeople in tow. “You see that at this menorah parade more than in any other way.”
Under the twinkling lights in the trees in Rittenhouse Square, Center City Kehillah held its annual menorah lighting accompanied by Center City residents and Jewish organizations on Dec. 18, one night after Lubavitch of Center City held a menorah lighting in the same spot.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit from Mishkan Shalom and local musician Ami Yares provided tunes as people mingled to keep warm and enjoy holiday treats. A children’s choir sang a one-verse rendition of “I Have a Little Dreidel” that was too adorable to describe. (Zevit’s attempt to beatbox in the background was an admirable effort.)
Attendees were encouraged to bring new or gently used children’s winter clothing to be donated to Philly FIGHT.
“It’s just so important for the community to come together in the square and in a public space and celebrate our Judaism together,” said Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, director of Center City Kehillah, a program of the Jewish Federation. “Chanukah is all about publicizing the miracle, so being here all together is really special.”
The Bucks County Jewish Coalition took to the water to light the final candle.
In collaboration with the Bucks County Rabbinic Council, Bucks County synagogues and both Doylestown Hadassah and Newtown Hadassah, the organization held its third-annual Chanukah on the Delaware on Dec. 19.
It started as an initiative by Kehilat HaNahar Education Director Stacey Frank and Charlie Sahner of the New Hope Free Press.
“In celebrating Chanukah by the Delaware River, we are bridging New Hope and Lambertville, the greater Bucks County Jewish communities, the affiliated and unaffiliated, and inviting all those who wish to bring light into the darkness to celebrate the festival of lights,” said Rabbi Diana Miller of Kehilat HaNahar in New Hope.
“At the darkest time of the year, and in a dark time in the world, we take time through song, lighting candles and teachings to remember that miracles do exist around us,” she added, “and that we need to have courage to bring light into this country and into this world.”