Baltimore rabbis using quirky menorahs to shine light on Hanukkah

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky says he’s always looking for fresh ways to promote the Jewish faith and its teachings.

He has hired mentalists and handwriting experts for parties at Ariel Jewish Center, a Russian Jewish synagogue and community center he runs in Pikesville. He’s emceed a “Jewish Family Feud” game.

Then there was a giant Hanukkah menorah made of yellow balloons. Belinsky and a friend fashioned an 8-foot version of the traditional holiday candelabrum from party decorations last year and, as funny as it looked, it became the main attraction of the biggest holiday party the center has ever thrown.

The rabbi used the occasion to retell the history of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that begins at sundown Sunday, Dec. 22.

“Entertainment can be a big part of education,” he says.

When Belinsky’s center reprises the balloon menorah this year, it won’t be the only novelty version of the symbolic lampstand on display in the Baltimore area.

Hundreds are expected to gather, as usual, in McKeldin Square downtown Sunday, Dec. 22, at 4:30 p.m. for the annual lighting of a 30-foot, metal menorah that stands just 2 feet shy of being the world’s tallest. As it’s one of the shortest days of the year, sunset is at 4:47 p.m.

Outside the Town House in Sykesville, a group of children affiliated with Chabad of Carroll County will light the first lamp on a 6-foot-tall menorah they made out of thousands of Lego pieces at a community party.

At Hunt Valley Towne Centre, members of Chabad of Hunt Valley will unveil an 8-foot menorah carved from blocks of ice, while on Sunday morning, elementary school students at Harford Chabad in Bel Air will create a chocolate menorah as part of a holiday bash.

Rabbi Kushi Schuster of the Harford group said certain details were still up in the air (he was testing whether milk chocolate or dark chocolate could most easily be melted over a metal candelabrum), but he expected it to reflect the holiday’s meaning, as well as his goal of spreading and supporting Judaism in overwhelmingly non-Jewish Harford County.

“One of the rabbinic themes of the holiday is spreading the Hanukkah miracle,” he said. “And if you’ve ever done anything in marketing, you know that if you make something boring, it’s going to be boring. … Make it exciting, and people will come out and enjoy the experience, thank God.”

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates a seminal event in Jewish history. Nearly 2,200 years ago, a ruling body in Jerusalem dominated by the Syrian Greeks banned Judaism and captured the Jewish people’s most sacred site, the Second Temple. A cadre of rebels, the Maccabees, eventually ousted their oppressors and reclaimed and rededicated the temple. When they went to light ceremonial lamps, it is said, they found just one day’s worth of oil, but the lights blazed for eight days and nights.

Jews celebrate this miracle each winter by lighting menorahs, candelabra built to hold nine candles —eight to mark the eight days and nights, and one to light them.

Originally set in the windows of homes, menorahs have generally been modest in size and made of metal or wood.

But in the early 1970s, the Orthodox Jewish movement known as Chabad-Lubavitch began pushing the menorah envelope. Its famed rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, promoted the creation of “public menorahs” —oversized versions that could be lit as reminders of the Hanukkah miracle and as a declaration of religious freedom.

The first was built in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1974, the second a year later in San Francisco. Chabad communities have created some 15,000 more around the world since then, including at the Eiffel Tower, the Kremlin and the Great Wall of China. Menorahs made of tiki torches and surfboards have appeared in Hawaii and California. New York is home to two 32-footers. Menorahs are carried on riverboats in San Antonio and elephants’ backs in Thailand.

The Baltimore-area rabbis helping create novelty menorahs are members of Chabad, too. While their handiwork is part of the growing trend, each of their menorahs is part of its own story.

Belinsky’s Ariel Center serves the Russian Jewish community in Baltimore area, a group he numbers at about 15,000 people.

Most emigrated to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he says, and most lived under such religious oppression that “many American non-Jews know more about the Jewish faith than they do.” Belinsky says quirky experiences like creating the balloon menorah —or staging games such as “Jewish Wheel of Fortune,” which he’ll do at the final lighting ceremony of this Hanukkah on Dec. 29 —draw more people and enhance the fun.

When Rabbi Sholy Cohen and his wife, Feigie, moved to Sykesville to start Chabad of Carroll County in 2012, they found a Jewish population of about 3,000, but no full-time rabbi and little community coherence. The center runs Jewish activities such as charity drives and children’s classes, and the community of faith is growing.

Its Lego menorah will stand at the Sykesville Town House beside a metal one “for grown-ups,” Cohen says, symbols of the community’s present and future vitality.

The ice menorah is likewise part of Hunt Valley Chabad’s effort to foster community in northern Baltimore County, and Schuster says the Bel Air chocolate party is aimed, like many Chabad initiatives, at the children who Jewish leaders hope will one day lead the faith.

The Harford celebrants will cross the street to a public park Sunday afternoon to light a larger, public menorah against the backdrop of the setting sun.

Like Hanukkah itself, Schuster says, the act will cast light into darkness.

“This is all about inspiration, about giving people strength and making them part of a larger community,” he says. “That’s what I find people respond to.”