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Sea of Moving Menorahs to Head to the Mall

December 10, 2009 By:
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Make way for Jewish merriment: A parade of bedecked vehicles adorns the Ben Franklin Parkway. Photo by Jordan Cassway
Jeff Penfil, a Chester County dentist, readily admits that some may find it a little hokey that he likes to affix a giant menorah to the roof of his Subaru SUV -- and leave it there for the eight days and nights of Chanukah.

As it turns out, the West Goshen resident doesn't have to go far to elicit some quizzical looks.

"I love it, but my kids are really embarrassed," said the 49-year-old, referring to his 13-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. But he also said that he's gotten plenty of amused honks and thumbs ups while heading to and from work.

For the past three years, Penfil has rented the homemade menorah -- which attaches to the roof of his car via powerful suction cups -- from Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County.

He's just supposed to keep it for one night, in order to take part in what's becoming a yearly tradition for Lubavitch of Greater Philadelphia -- a car menorah parade.

Indeed, it's an odd-looking sight. Last year, more than 100 cars turned into mobile-menorahs headed down Benjamin Franklin Parkway en route to Independence Mall.

Lubavitch's fourth annual "March of Lights" is slated for Dec. 12, the second night of Chanukah. Vehicles will gather at Eakins Oval -- where they will be outfitted for the occasion -- and drive, with police escort, at a slow pace all the way to Independence Mall. Once assembled there, they will light the 37-foot-high menorah that stands for a week near the Independence Visitor's Center.

Festivities will also include live music, fire jugglers and, of course, hot latkes.

It was during last year's parade of cars that Penfil decided to take the public proclamation of the Chanukah miracle -- in second century BCE, after the Jewish Maccabees defeated the Assyrian Greek army, and found a bit of oil in the ancient Temple that lasted for a full eight days and led to the rededication of the Temple -- even further, and leave the menorah on for the entire holiday.

Does he do it because of any Christmas envy -- a need to compete with his non-Jewish neighbors decking out their homes with holiday decor?

"What I think makes Chanukah compete with Christmas is the giving of major gifts. This is the Festival of Lights. Why not light up?" said the dentist, who is a member of the Conservative Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester. "I just feel like it's great to live in America because you can do this here."

'It's Not a Spectacle'

According to Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who oversees Lubavitch's activities in the region and chairs its international umbrella group, Philadelphia hosts the largest menorah car parade in the world. This year, he expects up to 200 cars to take part. Folks had to register for the event to get their car-topper; the deadline for that has passed.

Shemtov said that he isn't sure how many such processions take place worldwide, or who came up with the idea that's now become a tradition. He did say, however, that similar events take place in New York; Baltimore; and Washington, D.C.

Isn't it a little, you know, over the top?

"It's not a spectacle," said Shemtov. With Chanukah, "the emphasis is that this is something that is shared with the rest of the world. We have to bring the message to the world, about the struggle between the might and the right -- which is not always on the same side."

Shemtov actually pioneered the concept of illuminating a menorah on public property. In 1974, directly in front of Independence Hall, he led a group of rabbis in lighting a small, wooden menorah.

In many ways, the symbolic gesture was not only about recalling ancient events, but amounted to a celebration of the fact that American Jews lived free from persecution in a country that not only tolerated their presence, but seemed to welcome a public display of Jewish faith.

Still, the early years, the menorahs sparked a huge controversy in the Jewish community, with some concerned that it was was signaled a futile effort to compete with Christmas.

The American Jewish Congress took the lead in opposing the placement of menorahs on public property, worried that it would weaken the barrier between church and state, and be viewed as government endorsement of a particular religion.

The debate came to a head in 1989. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in County of Allegheny v. Pittsburgh that menorahs could be placed on government property because they have "attained secular status in our society."

But what about mobile ones? There's no constitutional issue raised there, according to Jeffrey Pasek, an expert on the establishment clause who chairs the church-state committee of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network.

A parade constitutes a limited and temporary use of public space and couldn't be mistaken for a government endorsement of religion, explained Pasek.

In terms of the Jewish world, Chabad's overtly public embrace of the holiday has not been widely copied. One Orthodox rabbi in the region, who did not wish to be identified because he didn't want to offend the group, stated that the public lightings are generally frowned upon in the rest of the Orthodox world.

But Rabbi Albert Gabbai, an Orthodox rabbi at Congregation Mikveh Israel right on Independence Mall, noted that while it might not be his cup of tea, the parade serves to adapt to modern times the call to publicize the miracle of Chanukah.

"I don't know if they carried it on a horse or chariot," Gabbai said, referring to the ancient practices during the celebration. "What is important is the spirit. Publicizing the miracle is an extremely important aspect. During the course of centuries, publicizing such things very often brought us a lot of problems."

Rabbi Yitzchok Gurevitz of Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Philadelphia said that the car parade is more participatory than just showing up for a public lighting. He also noted that it brings joy to those not directly taking part.

"You're watching people that are inconvenienced; they are stuck in traffic," he declared, referring to issues caused by the road closures. "You don't see any frustrated people; you see people with these huge smiles on their faces."

For his part, Penfil said that he's had a blast each time he's participated.

"It's really nice to be able to do something that says that Judaism can be a lot of fun. Not even all Jews think it can be a lot of fun," said Penfil, who added that he plans to leave the menorah on his car for the entire holiday yet again.

There's just one problem: His daughter Rachael -- who's president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Region of United Synagogue Youth -- just got her driver's license.

"This year will be interesting," he said. "If she wants to borrow my car, she's going to have drive around like that."

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