Journalist Danny Fenster helps light Menorah in the D, marking first night of Hanukkah

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — As Menorah in the D returned to downtown Detroit on Sunday evening after a virtual-only event last year, another recent returnee, Danny Fenster, was there to light one of eight Hanukkah candles.

Fenster, 37, a journalist from Huntington Woods, spent nearly six months jailed in Myanmar. His release and return were engineered earlier this month by Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“I couldn’t imagine a better community to come back to,” Fenster said, in remarks at a reception at the One Campus Martius Building before the menorah lighting.

Danny Fenster, right, speaks during the Menorah in the D lighting event in Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit on Sunday. He is joined by Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, left.

Just a week before Fenster was released, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison with hard labor. Some of his supporters began to lose hope; before his conviction, Fenster was charged by the military-ruled Myanmar government with additional violations that put him at risk of a life sentence.

Then he was suddenly turned over to Richardson.

Fenster gave brief remarks at the reception before the lighting. He said he hadn’t been back in the area in “three or four years,” and was impressed by the changes.

As Fenster spoke, Metro Detroiters skated at the Campus Martius ice rink and traveled between downtown restaurants.

Danny Fenster, left, lights the menorah to launch the start of Hanukkah, with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Detroit Mayro Mike Duggan.

Fenster said that he’s still in touch with the team at Frontline Myanmar, where he was working as managing editor of the online magazine when he was jailed, but that he’s not sure what his next move will be.

“We’re gonna see what the future holds,” Fenster said.

More:Danny Fenster arrives in N.Y.; Richardson persuaded Myanmar leader on release

State Sen. Jeremy Moss credited the Fenster family for pursuing justice for Danny and rallying the Metro Detroit community around him. 

"A wrong has been righted,” said Moss, a Democrat who represents the district the Fensters live in, said Sunday at the reception.

Fenster said that on his plane ride back to America, he was shocked to learn how big his case had gotten, and how much attention it garnered globally.

“It was just an incredible display of organizing, of communicating, of getting everyone together,” Moss said. “We are all an extension of the Fenster family, because of (their) efforts to keep this amplified.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein joined Fenster as one of the eight lamplighters.

The giant menorah in Campus Martius Park in Detroit is featured with the central candle lit and the first candle, far left, representing the first night of Hanukkah.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter were also in attendance.

Duggan said he was the first Detroit mayor to attend Menorah in the D, back in 2014. He's been back most years since, organizers said.

"None of those hasn't been as special as this year, when we're celebrating the return of Danny Fenster safely to this community," Duggan said before the lighting. "This truly is a Happy Hanukkah in Detroit. God bless you."

Menorah in the D, in its 11th year, marked the start of Hanukkah, which runs for eight days from dusk Sunday through Dec. 6. Chabad Lubavitch of Michigan put on the even.

Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates how the Maccabees, a small, outnumbered army of Jews, trounced the Syrian Greek forces that occupied the Holy Land nearly 2,200 years ago.

Dave Goldman of Ferndale said he's seen Menorah in the D event hold bigger crowds in the past, pre-pandemic. He was happy to see it return in-person this year.

Goldman joked that the roots of Hanukkah are similar to other Jewish holidays: "They tried to kill us and we won."

The menorah itself is 26-feet tall and made of steel and glass.

Said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, vice president for the Chabad Lubavitch of Michigan: “We are going forward to bring everyone together again as we light the Menorah in downtown Detroit.”