Menorah in the D honors ancient tradition, Pittsburgh victims

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Each Hanukkah, Erika Bocknek marvels at the multiple menorahs illuminating her family’s home as night falls.

On Sunday, to mark the Jewish holiday beginning at sunset, the Farmington Hills resident received a torch representing a flame that lit a massive steel and glass version of the traditional candelabra during the Menorah in the D event in Detroit’s Campus Martius Park.

In addition to honoring an ancient tradition, Bocknek took part with more than 100 others in a moment of silence and a song of faith to honor the victims of a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead

Bocknek's uncle, Barry Werber, 76, survived the incident in October.

“Hanukkah is a holiday that is about miracles and light,” said Bocknek, a psychology professor at Wayne State University. “It’s always a really special time for our family and community, but particularly after a tragedy, it feels so special to be a part of something so positive.”

Erica Fischman, left, of Southfield and Dawn Straith of Detroit attach branches to the parade-float menorah. Straith is the Hillel Day School innovation-hub coordinator and educator.

For the duration of Hanukkah, which ends at dusk Dec. 10, Jews throughout southeast Michigan are savoring its themes — gathering with loved ones, spreading cheer —  in trying times.

“Hanukkah is a good way to chase away the darkness that seems to be spreading in the country by bringing light and goodness and blessings to the world,” said Rabbi Shalom Kantor of Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield Township.

Also known as the Festival of Light, Hanukkah 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.

The name derives from a Hebrew term meaning “dedication” or “induction,” referring to rededicating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration. The length symbolizes how a single vessel of oil containing one day’s supply miraculously lasted eight.

As congregants find comfort in recounting the age-old retelling of battling adversity, some noted its reflection in today’s world.

An annual Anti-Defamation League audit found anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest reported since the group started keeping track in 1979. Officials there also noted the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics Act report showed incidents fueled by anti-Jewish bias accounted for nearly 60 percent of all religion-based hate crimes last year, the highest of any targeted religious group.

The gunman who opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh reportedly told police "all these Jews need to die."

The giant candelabra glows with a dual purpose this year, said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, spiritual director and founder of the Shul-Chabad Lubavitch in West Bloomfield Township, the event’s host.

"It is meant to be a light in times of challenges and difficulty, just like when the Greeks were oppressing the Jews. That was a light to light up a difficult time," he said. "When we have a story like what we have experienced in Pittsburgh, the message is to light the candle and realize we can counter that with light. … It only beckons us to come out more and express this message in greater fashion.”

"It's nice to come together with people who are like-minded," said Lauren Bell, 27, of Novi during the candelabra lighting. "There's so much hate in the world, but it brings people together."

Erica Fischman, left, of Southfield and Rabbi Shalom Kantor attach branches to the parade-float menorah. West Bloomfield Township's Congregation B'nai Moshe Rabbi Shalom Kantor is assisted by Hillel Day School seventh graders, in Farmington Hills, as they assemble a wooden menorah, Thursday morning, Nov. 29, 2018, on the rear of their "Parade of Light" float. The parade, in Oakland County Dec. 8-9, is the final weekend of Hanukkah.

Other Metro Detroiters are displaying their faith in other ways.

Kantor’s synagogue is teaming with students at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills to present a “Parade of Lights.”  The youths worked to craft oversize model menorahs riding on a float older students of the synagogue’s Hebrew school are erecting to steer through two Oakland County neighborhoods next weekend. 

For Genny Aronov, a seventh-grader from West Bloomfield Township, hewing the structures reinforced her Jewish roots and offered a way to share that with others. “I feel like people don’t always realize the different parts that go into Hanukkah,” Genny said. “A lot of people don’t realize that to us, this holiday means so much more than presents.”

Another aspect: giving back.

Through an ongoing Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit initiative focused on monthly mitzvahs, or good deeds, young Hanukkah Helpers next weekend are assembling packages full of holiday cards, trinkets, toiletries and more for families and older adults enrolled in the group’s Adopt a Family program, said Erin Lederman-Thackray, a coordinator.  

"I'm helping other people and it just makes me feel good," said Rachel Pavey, 13, an eighth-grader from Franklin.

Throughout Hanukkah, Repair the World Detroit, a group that marshals young Jews to volunteer in addressing major community issues, is leading “Celebrate and Service” days allowing participants to help out on various efforts: from making games for a city-based tutoring program to playing bingo with seniors. The initiative culminates Dec. 9 in micro-service projects for Gleaners Community Food Bank.

"We really think there is a value in transformative relationships, and especially with rising anti-Semitism, it’s really important to see across lines of difference,” program manager Sarah Katz said. “That’s where we see each other’s humanity. We can create change and establish commonality, which is so much bigger than our differences.”

Jonah Owen, of Farmington Hills, brings out more pieces to the parade-float menorah.

Eva Goldman, a teen volunteer with the group, is planning a clothing collection drive she and her peers spearheaded.

As much as the Bloomfield Hills High School senior relishes parties and sampling the traditional potato pancakes during Hanukkah, “it’s important to not just look for what you have but also try to see how others’ lives are different and help as a much as you can," she said. "The holiday season can be a hard time for people who are having trouble.”

Other unique Hanukkah ventures also focus on the world at large. 

The Metro Detroit arm of Hazon, the Jewish lab for sustainability, is parking its 22-foot-long, solar-power-enhanced Topsy Turvy bus at various holiday events, serving freshly fried sufganiyot, then using the vegetable oil used to cook the traditional pastries to fuel a GMC vehicle.

“The miracle of Hanukkah is based on a divine intervention. The twist we’re bringing is as humans we have the ability to create structures that are sustainable,” said Rabbi Nate DeGroot, the group’s co-director and spiritual and program leader. “This is a divinely inspired miracle of sorts.”

A festival of light wouldn’t be complete without fun, though.

On Dec. 8, The Well, a Jewish community-building initiative based in Metro Detroit, is hosting two events aimed at blending tradition with whimsy. First, there’s a "Tot Shabbat" in Oak Park. Then, in Birmingham, adults toast an office party featuring mosaic menorahs through Creative Arts Studio, a live jazz band, trivia station, a catered latke bar and themed cocktails.

“It’s coming together to do creative, out-of-the-box celebrations,” said Brandon Klein, the group’s program and partnerships coordinator.

Staff Writer Breana Noble contributed.