An 11-foot menorah, the largest in Louisiana, will be lit next week not only to commemorate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah but also to honor the man who helped start the local celebration in 1989 and, as back then, to combat hate.
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins at sunset Dec. 12 and concludes Dec. 20. The oversized menorah was constructed by Isak Borenstein, a Polish Holocaust survivor who moved to New Orleans in 1951. It will be lit by Richard Cahn, president of Dixie Mills, as part of a celebration at The Riverwalk.
The event, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12, is sponsored by Chabad-Lubavich of Louisiana. It will take place on the terrace of The Riverwalk overlooking the Mississippi River.
The event will be dedicated in memory of Rabbi David Kaufmann, a leader of the Chabad community who also was a longtime professor of English and a member of the Jewish studies department at Tulane University. Rivkin said Kaufmann, who died earlier this year at the age of 65, spearheaded the Hanukkah at Riverwalk program.
“The event began in1989 with Chabad organizations doing these all around the world,” said Rabbi Mendel Rivkin, director of programming for Chabad. “When David Duke was running for statewide office in 1989, we, at Chabad, approached Riverwalk officials to host a public menorah lighting as a way of combating the hate. And we have done this every Hanukkah since.”
Food and refreshments will be served indoors in the food court area. The event also will include music and activities for children.
The eight-day festival of Hanukkah commemorates rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. The Holy Land was ruled by Syrians and Greeks, who tried to force the Jewish people to accept Greek culture and beliefs. According to Jewish tradition, a small group of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, drove the Greeks from the land and rededicated the temple.
When the Jewish people sought to relight the temple's eternal light, they found oil enough for only one day. That one-day supply, however, lasted for eight days, until more oil arrived.
A menorah has nine candles: eight candles in a row, and one helper candle known as a “shamash,” which is set apart from the others. Every night of Hanukkah, an additional candle is lit using the shamash candle until all eight candles are lit.
Foods fried in oil, such as latkes, or potato pancakes, are prepared during Hanukkah, to commemorate the miracle of the oil. It’s also customary to give gifts to children, play games and give to a charity each day of Hanukkah.
Rivkin said about 700 people turned out for the lighting at Riverwalk last year.
“We moved the event to Lakeside Shopping Center for two years in 2012 and 2013 because the Riverwalk was being renovated to its new configuration,” Rivkin added. “And up until 2011, including 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, we held the ceremony at Riverwalk.”
In addition to the menorah lighting, Chabad also will sponsor a menorah parade beginning at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16. The parade, which will feature Hanukkah throws and music, begins at Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana, 7037 Freret St. It will go through parts of Uptown, downtown, the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny and head back to Chabad.
Rivkin said Hanukkah at the Riverwalk aims to promote two ideals — “religious freedom and tolerance and the power of light over darkness.”
“We want this event to create an evening of pride in celebrating our Jewishness, to promote the ideas of religious freedom, to inspire members of the community to celebrate Hanukkah and to give Jewish tourists an outlet to celebrate the holiday whole they are in New Orleans,” he said.
Rivkin recalled meeting a visitor 15 years ago during the menorah lighting.
“An elderly Jewish guest was staying at the Hilton Riverside, and when he was leaving the hotel, the sound of music caught his ear so he followed the music to the Riverwalk,” Rivkin said.
“He realized that it was Jewish music and saw the menorah with hundreds of people standing around waiting for the lighting to commence. Overwhelmed with emotion, he burst into tears and he explained his emotional reaction."
The man said he was a Holocaust survivor.
"I can never forget how we were hunted as Jews in Nazi Europe," he told Rivkin. "Seeing my people publicly celebrate our holiday in a display of Jewish pride has moved me deeply. This has been a real healing experience and I cannot thank you enough for hosting this event."