As the gray sky darkened, a flame atop a 32-foot menorah on the corner of Pratt and Light streets sputtered to life. Reaching her torch to light the shamash, Mayor Catherine Pugh, perched on a hydraulic scissor lift, marked the start of Chanukah at the ninth annual Baltimore Chanukah Festival Sunday in McKeldin Square.
The menorah is, according to event organizer Chabad-Lubavitch Centers of Greater Baltimore, tied for the world’s largest and spells out Baltimore across its nine branches.
The location, in the heart of Baltimore’s inner harbor, “is a statement,” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland, “that in this country we do not fear to be in the public. We are confident and we know that the government will keep us secure. There are those who may have said this year after the tragic events that happened, ‘Don’t have a public lighting of the menorah.’ On the contrary, we are confident that we have security.”
“This is the second year we’ve been able to do it right here,” Pugh told the crowd of about 200 people. “And it really is exciting. But it also is a reminder of the trials and tribulations the Jewish community has gone through.”
The mayor acknowledged the challenges faced by the city in her comments, saying that reducing violence in the city “is the foremost focus” of her administration. “As we continue to pay tribute to this holiday,” Pugh said, “let us remember it is what we all do together to selectively work together to stem the tide of violence, to lift every single individual in our community and to take pride in those who choose to reside in our city and those who choose to visit our city.”
Baltimore’s menorah is one of more than 15,000 public menorahs sponsored by Chabad in more than 100 countries around the world. Organizer Rabbi Sholom Reindorp said the celebration is “a great way for people to get into the Chanukah spirit right from the very beginning. The message is even one little light is able to dispel darkness around it.” Reindorp says that message is “just as powerful today if not more.”
After Mayor Pugh lit the shamash, Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford ascended another hydraulic lift with Rabbi Mendy Rivkin, co-director of Chabad of Towson, to light the first candle. On stage earlier, Rutherford danced to the dreidel song with Kaplan. Under his gray suit jacket and over his shirt and tie, Rutherford wore a navy blue t-shirt that said “light up the world” over a picture of a menorah.
“There is a long and proud history between the state of Maryland and the state of Israel,” Rutherford told the crowd. “Just a couple of years ago the governor had a successful trade mission to Israel. We made it very clear that Maryland stands steadfast and in solidarity with Israel against the BDS movement.”
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, as well as city councilmen Eric Costello, Zeke Cohen and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer attended the presentation, along with Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and representatives from the fire and police departments.
The presentation capped off a two-hour Chanukah celebration that was shielded from the elements in a heated tent. The tent, Kaplan told event attendees, turned out to be an unnecessary precaution. “I spent the whole morning negotiating with God Almighty about the weather. We compromised. He said it won’t rain but the sun won’t shine either.”
The event featured music from Gobbie Cohn Music and the Zemer Orchestra and kosher vendors Mama Leah’s Pizza and Brooklyn Sandwich Company’s food truck. There were free donuts and Chanukah-themed games and crafts for the kids.
Nine-year-old Yosef Yitzchak Webb attended the event in a Chanukah-themed costume, ensconced in a painted cardboard box cut to resemble a dreidel. He shared the dreidel’s significance to the Chanukah story: “A long time ago the Greeks tried to not let us practice our Judaism, so we did it in hiding and when the Greeks tried to check what we were doing, we pulled out dreidels to say we’re not reading Torah we’re just spinning dreidels.”
Webb, however, said he was far more interested in “eating donuts” than spinning.
Yosef Bergstein, a volunteer with Chabad-Lubavitch, handed out free menorahs. Chabad’s goal, he said, is to “spread light to Jews around the world, bring them closer,” and in doing so “make the world better place for all mankind.”
Chanukah, Bergstein said, “reminds us of the miracle that happened” when the Greeks tried to oppress the Jewish people. The holiday’s message remains relevant today because “every person has their own personal challenges in our lives, [but] every person has the ability of spreading the light. It doesn’t need to be through something big. Sometimes we find it’s specifically the small things that one does that can have an everlasting effect on a person.”
“The message of Chanukah is the message of light,” Kaplan told event attendees. “The nature of light is that it is always victorious over darkness. A small amount of light dispels a lot of darkness. Another act of goodness and kindness, another act of light, can make all the difference.”
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.