As the first menorah candle flickered to life Sunday afternoon against a sunset-streaked sky over Boston Common, the Jewish community vowed to make their Hanukkah lights shine brighter this year, bringing hope after a year that saw an unsettling rise in anti-Semitism.
And with that wish, the Chabad House of Downtown Boston lit its 22-foot menorah to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, “The Festival of Lights.”
“This year has been a tough year in terms of anti-Semitism, and ultimately the best antidote to anti-Semitism is adding in light,” said Chabad Rabbi Yosef Zaklos. “The menorah is really that symbol of increasing light, positivity, religious freedoms, and unity. . . . A little bit of light banishes a lot of darkness.”
About 150 people attended Chabad’s 36th public menorah lighting late Sunday afternoon joined by Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston; City Councilor Ed Flynn; Robert Trestan, the New England executive director of the Anti-Defamation League; and Daniel Agranov, the deputy consul general of Israel to New England.
Trestan pointed to this year as one of “violence driven by hate all over the world.”
“It really has been a year of historically high incidents of anti-Semitism but also an escalation in the level of violence and targeting,” Trestan said before the lighting.
Earlier this month, six people, including a police officer, were fatally shot in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J., which the state attorney general said was “fueled by both anti-Semitism and anti-law enforcement beliefs.”
In April, in the Chabad of Poway, near San Diego, a gunman opened fire during Shabbat services, killing one person and injuring several others, including a rabbi. That attack came exactly six months after a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that took 11 lives.
Locally, in Arlington and Needham, two Chabad centers were hit in separate arson attacks — one lit on fire twice — in May. A month earlier, a Lowell rabbi wrote a story in the Jewish Journal about anti-Semitic slurs hurled at him while he was out on a Shabbat walk with a colleague.
“In anti-Semitism, there’s two approaches,” Zaklos said. “One is to hunker down and let it pass. But I think, ultimately, that’s a Band-Aid, and it comes back often in a more horrendous presentation. I think the best antidote to anti-Semitism is Jewish pride at its best.
“No,” he continued, “we’re not going to scale back on menorah lighting. We’re going to add more menorah lighting. No, we’re not going to scale back on crowds. We’re going to add greater participation, greater celebration.”
And that’s exactly what Chabad leaders are doing this year.
In addition to the traditional Boston Common lighting, they’re adding two lightings of 9-foot menorahs: One Thursday at 5 p.m. in the Seaport and another Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the South End. They’re also hosting a wine tasting and latke bar in Copley Place Mall next Sunday.
At the Boston Common Sunday, people joyously danced and clapped as four musicians played Hanukkah tunes. The crowd was filled with children, who ran to collect gelt — chocolate coins — from Walsh, who handed them out after he spoke to the crowd.
“As we light the candle tonight, we reflect on the values of faith, light, sharing, friendship, that brings us all together,” he said. “Those aren’t just words. Those are actions. When we leave here today, we want to take those words and turn them into actions.”
Shira Seigel, who attended the lighting with three friends, said she grew up in Pittsburgh and knows firsthand how anti-Semitism can affect a community. Her parents, she said, were married at the Tree of Life synagogue, but were not there the day of the shooting.
“It definitely hit home,” said Seigel, 24. “It’s a place where you would’ve said, ‘This will never happen here.’ And it happened.”
Seigel’s friend, Emma Purtell, said she hopes 2020 can mark a new start. “I hope that people become more accepting of each other,” said Purtell, 22.
Eve and Justin Gray, who live in Findlay, Ohio, were visiting relatives in New England this week and decided to bring their sons — Max, 8, and Dylan, 5 — to the lighting.
This year’s Hanukkah message of hope is one that can resonate with everyone, they said.
“It’s easy to get down and negative,” said Eve Gray. “But this Hanukkah season is all about hope and looking forward to a brighter future.”
Felicia Gans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.