For three decades, Rabbi Rachmiel Liberman presided over Hanukkah ceremonies in downtown Boston, lighting the menorah and sharing heartfelt words about the fight for religious freedom.
The leader of the Congregation Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Education Center in Brookline, Liberman organized ceremonies at the State House and in Downtown Crossing, complete with music and kosher food.
Over the years, he lit candles with elected officials from former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn to Governor Charlie Baker to mark the start of the eight-day festival of lights.
“Out of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is a happy holiday,” Liberman said last year before lighting a menorah in Downtown Crossing with Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
But this year, the menorah lighting will be tinged with sadness. Liberman died in August in his Brookline home, leaving a void in the city’s Hanukkah celebrations.
In his absence, Rabbi Mayer Zarchi of Chabad Boston will preside over the State House lighting, which will be held Dec. 23, at 4 p.m. Zarchi said he plans to honor Liberman during the ceremony, which Liberman “put so much time and thought” into orchestrating.
“The menorah will always carry his legacy, no question,” Zarchi said.
There are no plans at present for a ceremony at Downtown Crossing, city officials said.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he was saddened to learn of the rabbi’s death, saying Liberman had worked with his office for many years to organize the menorah lighting.
“He made the holiday lights burn bright,” DeLeo said in a statement.
Liberman was found dead Aug. 21 at his Woodcliff Road home, which also served as the Jewish Education Center’s home. Liberman died of natural causes, according to the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office, which investigates unattended deaths.
Liberman’s family could not be reached for comment Monday. According to an online death notice, he grew up in Massachusetts, studied in Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic schools, and had been active in Hanukkah celebrations since the mid-1980s.
Liberman was in his 50s, according to the death notice. He is survived by two brothers and a sister.
During the candle-lighting ceremonies, Liberman often spoke of religious freedom. It was achingly relevant in 2018, after 11 people were killed in Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh; and it rang true in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when he addressed Jews who had arrived in Boston after fleeing the former Soviet Union.
“Hanukkah is a celebration of the first fight for religious freedom, which has symbolism for everyone in Massachusetts,” he told the Globe in 1990. “But for the Soviet Jews it is especially significant, because many of them, I know, have never even had the freedom before in their lives to see a menorah.”
As Hannukah drew closer, certain Bostonians knew to start expecting Liberman’s calls. Legislators would hear about candle-lighting ceremony preparations. Newspaper editors were asked if they’d send reporters. He was a one-man public relations team, fully devoted to his cause, those who knew him said.
Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of the website ConsumerWorld.org, said he got to know Liberman when the rabbi had trouble with a car he bought for the center. The car, Liberman explained, was a lemon. But he was using it for business, so it wasn’t covered by the state’s lemon law.
Liberman would call Dworsky a few times a year about consumer issues, sometimes related to his cellphone or to a business selling kosher food that Liberman suspected was not really kosher.
“He was the instrumental force in the early ’90s getting the state kosher law passed,” Dworsky recalled. That law prohibited labeling anything as kosher unless it was made in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Every winter, Liberman sent Dworsky an invitation to attend the State House menorah lighting. The State House maintenance crew would bring a construction lift to raise the rabbi and elected officials to the top of the menorah and light the candles. A children’s choir would sing, and a Navy band played “I Have A Little Dreidel.” One year, Dworsky snapped a photo of Santa Claus standing behind Liberman, listening to the rabbi’s speech.
This year, the invitation didn’t come. Dworsky e-mailed the rabbi but didn’t hear back. Concerned, he looked him up online and was shocked to find a death notice.
Trudy Fagen, director of arts at Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, said she grew accustomed to hearing from Liberman, each year after the High Holy Days in the fall. He would invite her choir — boys and girls from 8 to 14 — to come sing at the State House ceremony.
Liberman was a “lovely man,” she said. He enjoyed hearing the choir singing holiday songs, from the traditional “Maoz Tzur” to his favorite, a song describing the first night of Hanukkah from the musical “Yours, Anne,” an adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary.
“He was a character,” Fagen said. “But he really did it with an open heart, I have to say.”
Globe correspondent Sofia Saric contributed to this report. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.