Fifty years ago, The Rebbe launched his global Chanukah campaign.
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson’s aim was to share the light of Chanukah with Jews around the world. Many will light the first candle tonight, but sadly, there are many Jews unable to celebrate the festival for various reasons. This is where Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries annually swing into action to ensure all Jews can enjoy the Festival of Lights.
And it is particularly poignant this year with Israel at war against Hamas and over 100 hostages still being held in captivity following the terror attack by Hamas on October 7.
Going back five decades, the Rebbe was renowned for welcoming Jews from all backgrounds, and Chanukah was a time that sentiment shone brightly.
He called for every Jewish home to be filled with the light of a menorah to illuminate the wider world.
“We should listen attentively to what the Chanukah lights are telling us,” the Rebbe wrote in 1982. “The mitzvah of the Chanukah lights symbolises, in a tangible and visible way, all the mitzvot of the Torah, all of which are defined in terms of light.”
“Living Yiddishkeit”, he added, required a “continuous growth” to enrich one’s “spiritual life”.
For the Rebbe, it was essential menorah candles could be seen outside to “publicise the miracle of Chanukah” and symbolically convey a message that everyone who lights the candles must not forget those “unaware of Chanukah” or their “Jewish identity”.
“It is our duty to reach out and bring the light of living Yiddishkeit into their hearts and homes in the spirit of Chanukah in a growing measure,” he said.
Chabad emissaries on six continents will light candles at over 15,000 public menorahs whilst thousands of menorah-topped cars will take to the streets.
Online annually an estimated 10 million visitors will utilise Chabad’s ‘how-to’ guides.
Chabad traditionally distribute 64 million Chanukah candles, over 700,000 menorah kits, and 2.5 million holiday guides in 17 languages. It is a monumental effort.
“There is a pre-eminence in the mitzvot connected with lighting candles, in that the effect of the action, the appearance of light, is immediately visible,” the Rebbe explained when he launched the initiative. “The mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah light is unique in that it is required to be displayed to the outside. Thus, every by-passer, including non-Jews, immediately notices the effect of the light, which illuminates the outside and the environment.”
Twelve months after his famous public letter, the first menorah lighting took place outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia then in San Francisco in 1975. By the end of the ‘70s, public menorahs were in New York City, the White House, and in Los Angeles.
Chabad emissaries began distributing menorah and candle kits. The uptake was a major hit alongside creative programs such as ‘Chanukah on Ice’ and olive-oil press workshops around the world.
Creative thinking was essential on different continents. A boomerang-themed menorah was available in Northern Queensland, Australia. There were drive-ins and firework displays, but for many communities, the car menorah parade has proved incredibly popular and it started in the United States as part of the Rebbe’s campaign with cars of all shapes and sizes hitting the road.
But how did it start? Rabbi Shmuel Lipsker was a student at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He recalls building a homemade menorah and placing it on top of a station wagon, stopping to pick up flares to light it.
“This was before public menorah-lightings, the concept didn’t exist,” he told Chabad. “It was such a huge attraction. We were giving out menorahs, more and more people were gathering around us. By the time we lit our menorahs with the flares, we had a huge crowd. It was unbelievable.”
Throughout the late ‘70s, the parade gained strength and continued into the 1980s. The mid-90s brought a new development when Nochum Goldschmidt, a yeshivah student in Sydney, Australia, felt the parade needed a boost, so he designed an improved car menorah, and in 1998, started CarMenorah.com to sell everything you need for every type of car.
‘Happy Chanukah’ and ‘Chabad wishes you a Happy Chanukah’ signs are well known and will be on display in every place imaginable, including large sporting venues.
In 1987, Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus, co-director of Chabad South Broward County, Florida was in at the start of the boom when he lit a menorah at the Joe Robbie Stadium
in Miami before 80,000 fans. Days before Chanukah, Rabbi Pinny Andrusier, co-director of Chabad Southwest Broward, was attending a farbrengen in Brooklyn and told the Rebbe of the lighting at a Miami Dolphins game.
“L’chaim,” the Rebbe acknowledged, knowing the significance of a vast live and TV audience.
It is now the norm for Chabad to host a ‘Jewish Heritage Night’ at games.
All these years on from the Rebbe’s Chanukah wish to light up the world, his dream still grows.
He concluded in his famed ’73 letter, “May Gd grant that everyone of us be truly inspired by the teachings of Chanukah and of the Chanukah Lights, and translate this inspiration into actual deeds, in our everyday life and conduct.”
I’ve enjoyed the time-honoured tradition firstly growing up in Leeds then with my wife Deborah and children, and now grandchildren. The wonderment on their faces is what makes the festival special, and latkes! But as the Rebbe wished, we will also think of all those who can’t light a menorah, particularly the IDF soldiers conducting a dangerous operation across Gaza.