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40 Years of Chanukah Light at Independence Hall

December 2, 2013 By:
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The 40th annual menorah lighting ceremony in front of Independence Hall drew a crowd of hundreds. Photo by Baruch Ezagui.

The lighting of the giant menorah in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on Saturday night marked the 40th anniversary of the first public menorah-lighting ceremony in the world. 

In 1974, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, a Chabad rabbi who now oversees Lubavitch's activities in the region, was joined by five others in that first public lighting. This year, some 1,000 people attended, according to the organizers. 

“There was a little menorah lit in front of Independence Hall 40 years ago, and now there isn’t a place in the world where a menorah is not lit publicly,” Shemtov said, marveling at the achievement.

When asked about Chabad’s decision to hold a public menorah lighting ceremony so many years ago, Shemtov expressed a message of outreach, acceptance and spreading the light of Chanukah.

“The world wants to know, the world is ready to listen and hear and it’s our job to share it with them,” Shemtov told the Jewish Exponent.

Chabad's decision to hold public menorah lightings during Chanukah sparked a fierce debate within the Jewish community for decades. Opponents saw the public display as a violation of church-state separation. The issue even made its way to  the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1989 that menorahs could be placed on government property because they have "attained secular status in our society."

Perhaps with this fact in mind, Shemtov noted the sages’ emphasis on the importance of 40 years, a length of time that he said allows for “maturity” and the ability to apply lessons learned.

The local ceremony was preceded by the eighth annual “March of Lights” in which a couple of hundred families attached large menorahs to their car roofs and drove through Philadelphia’s downtown area before arriving at Independence Hall.

To view photos from the event, click on the photo at the top right of the screen to start a slideshow.

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