By Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press
Forty years ago, an Orthodox Jewish group lit a big menorah at the historic Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
It was the start of a tradition that Chabad, which has chapters in metro Detroit, has continued, lighting menorahs in public spaces around the U.S. and world to celebrate Hanukkah, religious freedom and hope.
This evening, Detroit will feature its 4th annual menorah lighting at Campus Martius in an event that’s expected to draw more than 3,000. The lighting of the 25-foot-tall menorah kicks off the start of Hanukkah. The eight-day Jewish holiday begins at sundown today and ends next Wednesday.
“This is an opportunity for the Jewish community to share the message of Hanukkah — of light and warmth — with the entire city,” said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, spiritual director of the Shul-Chabad Lubavitch in West Bloomfield.
Hanukkah recalls the miracle of a small jug of oil lasting eight days during the rededication of a temple during a time when the Jewish people were oppressed by the ancient Greeks. Lighting the eight candles of the menorah during Hanukkah reminds worshipers of the triumph of light and freedom over injustice.
“Each one of us has within us that pure jug of oil that remains aflame and can give warmth to us and those around us,” explained Shemtov. “We open the news and see stories of darkness … we light a candle of brightness in response.”
One of Shemtov’s uncles helped conduct the first public Chabad menorah lighting in Philadelphia in 1974. Since then, the tradition has expanded around the world, with lightings from Moscow to Paris to New York City. Oak Park has had a public menorah lighting for about 30 years. There will also be public menorah lightings this week in Southfield, Farmington Hills and Grand Rapids organized by Chabad.
The lightings help highlight the importance of religious freedom, one of the core ideas of America, said Shemtov.
“The foundation of our country is built on religious freedom, and what better way to express that freedom than to have a menorah standing tall in our city,” he said.
As an immigrant from Ukraine, Karina Frankel of West Bloomfield understands that. She said there were no public menorah events as in the U.S. when she was growing up there. And at the time, she didn’t know much about her Jewish heritage.
“Here, we’re allowed to express ourselves,” she said. “It’s nice to be part of Detroit for this wonderful holiday.”
Ben Rosenzweig of West Bloomfield, who is helping organize tonight’s event, said he hopes this becomes a tradition for the city. A few hundred showed up for the first lighting in 2011, and last year, about 2,000 attended.
“We encourage people of other faiths to come,” he said. “We want you to be there.”