The Levine family: Matthew, Susan, Allison and Samuel (Courtesy)An inflatable bear with a brown dreidel given to Matthew and Susan Levine’s children in 2014 now sits in the company of more than 40 Chanukah-themed inflatables at the River Hill Hanukkah House in the Village of River Hill in Columbia. The bear, a gift from Susan’s mother, awakened in Matthew — and now in the couple’s children Allison, 11, and Samuel, 9 as well — the spirit of celebrating the eight-day “Festival of Lights” on a grand scale, and with it, an affirmation of their pride in Judaism.
“I want to add even more inflatables next year,” remarked 41-year-old business owner Matthew Levine, “and would love some on the roof as well.”
“I don’t see that happening,” quipped Susan Levine, 43, a government health-care attorney who grew up in Reisterstown, and who seems both delighted and in awe of the ever-expanding “Hanukkah House.”
The Levines have lived on Empty Song Road for 16 years now and are members of Bet Chaverim Congregation. Raised in Gaithersburg, Matthew attended Congregation Kehilat Shalom as a child.
The display currently consists of more than 100,000 pixel and LED lights, and all those inflatables, ranging from three feet tall to several that reach higher than 20 feet, plus two menorahs that span 28 feet to the top of the highest candle. There are also six projectors on the house that illuminate blue-and-white Stars of David onto both the street and the house, each measuring 20×20 feet in length and height.
That their children are now taking part in laying out the decor reaffirms for the Levines the concept and practice of L’dor v’dor — passing on values and traditions “from generation to generation.”
Allison loves design, explained her dad, and she helped him with the layout so that many of the decorations could fit in their yard. As it is, they had to borrow space from two neighboring homes, whose owners happily obliged, shared the Levines. (It helped, added the couple, that the neighbors were also Jewish.) After one of the neighbors who volunteered some space as the display expanded over time sold their house and moved two years ago, the new neighbors, who are not Jewish, have welcomed the spillover onto their yard as well.
‘We live in a free country’
While there is an entertaining spirit and lightheartedness in the development of the River Hill Hanukkah House, Matthew Levine shared that after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, they made the Hanukkah House even larger.
“A few years ago, after the shooting, people asked if we were concerned about possible anti-Semitic acts here,” he said. “But no one is going to stop us. We live in a free country, and one of the things that makes this country great is our ability to be free to practice our religion. Because if we stop, then the crazies win, and we can’t let the crazies win.”
In addition to expanding the River Hill Hanukkah House display, the Chanukah celebration has also become bigger, drawing more visitors to the house and creating more opportunities for engagement. Visitors to River Hill Hanukkah House increased during the coronavirus pandemic, a time when people were eager to participate in activities outdoors. News of Hanukkah House spread rapidly through word of mouth ever since.
And as of last year, the home has become the staging area for a car-menorah parade organized by Chabad of Clarksville, directed by Rabbi Yosef Chaim and Chaya Sufrin, which travels to the Village of River Hill, where the community gathers for a public menorah-lighting.
Matthew started a Facebook page with an online link for donations to be made to the Chabad House, and the couple has also placed a tzedakah box outside their home for the same purpose — namely, to increase light over the darkness.
River Hill Hanukkah House will be lit from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily through New Year’s. The house is Shabbat-friendly and has automatic timers used on Shabbat.