If it’s Chanukah, it’s time for Chabad

Crowds watch as the Chabad of Bethesda lights their menorah on Bethesda Row on Dec. 2. (Photos courtesy of the Chabad of Bethesda)

When Rabbi Sender Geisinsky, co-director of Chabad of Bethesda, was growing up, the family would drive around town with a menorah strapped to the roof of their car. So committed was his father, Rabbi Bentzion Geisinsky, to publicizing the miracle of Chanukah, that he stopped the car on the shoulder of the Beltway and unloaded the menorah before driving away.

“My father knew there was a premium on how many eyeballs you can get,” Sender Geisinsky said.That’s how important publicizing the miracle is to the rabbis of Chabad, a chasidic movement that focuses on outreach to Jews and — in the case of Chanukah, whose last day is Dec. 10 — to the world at large.

Each year, the area’s many Chabad rabbis seem to try to outdo themselves — and each other — in displaying the biggest, most amazing, most unlikely menorah.

This year, Geisinsky’s Chabad had a menorah made out of candy. It was “the idea of the committee of Geisinsky children,” he said.


His community’s celebration included a miniature train for children to ride, a magic show and plastic dreidels that kids filled with candy.

Over in Gaithersburg, Rabbi Sholom Raichik’s Chabad of Upper Montgomery County has hosted a Chanukah parade for 16 years. A fire truck drives a menorah around town, stopping at shopping centers for people to see. There are performers, including fire jugglers. This year, they are also having a Chanukah Wonderland, with activities for children.

Chabad celebrations haven’t always been this public or creative. As a minority, Jews tended to celebrate in private spaces. And there was the First Amendment separation of religion and state to consider.

But a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and to Chabad, the religious obligation of publicizing the miracle was paramount. “Part of the mitzvah of Chanukah is publicizing the miracle,” Raichik said. “It’s unique to Chanukah. You don’t publicize Sukkot.”

In 1974, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov erected the first public menorah in Philadelphia. Five years later, Shemtov erected a menorah on the White House lawn. Raichik remembers the first lighting of a menorah in New York’s Central Park in 1977. “It was a big thing, you know. They put up a 30-foot menorah in the entrance to Central Park. Now it’s standard,” he said.

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that privately funded religious displays on public grounds are allowed as long as the displays are identified as privately backed and that all religions have equal access.

But the largest menorah lighting in Washington is that of the National Menorah near the White House. American Friends of Chabad-Lubavitch hosts the event. “I’m really happy that [the event] is so publicized, because it is a mitzvah,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of the organization and son of Rabbi Abraham Shemtov.

Originally, there were people, including Jews, who argued against public menorah lighting, he said.

They’ve become so uncontroversial that Chabad rabbis are reaching beyond the Jewish community.This year, the Washington Capitals hockey team joined Chabad of Olney with a hockey-themed celebration at a local shopping center.

“It’s a unique event and a unique program,” said Rabbi Bentzy Stolik of Chabad of Olney. “The idea was inspired by the Capitals Stanley Cup win.” The team donated used hockey sticks to build a nine-foot-tall menorah. On the first night, the team sent over one of their players and the team mascot to the party.

Stolik said it’s especially important to have a public celebration following the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. “Our community being so tied with Pittsburgh and in the shadow of recent events, I think this year the display of the Chanukah is going to resonate with Jewish community,” he said. “There’s the Jewish spark.”

For many Chabad rabbis, things have really changed since their childhoods. Chanukah has become a larger and more public holiday. Each year they need to find new, bigger, better ways to publicize the miracle.

“It’s more collaboration than competition,” Geisinsky said. “Chanukah might be like Chabad’s Super Bowl in that we’re pulling out the efforts in getting as many people engaged as possible.”

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