Students, community kick off Hanukkah in Oakland

Pitt community members celebrate Hanukkah in Schenley Plaza. Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

In two separate Hanukkah celebrations that spanned Oakland, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community honked, cheered and danced its way into the first night of this year’s Festival of Lights.

Starting at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, a police-escorted motorcade of about 100 cars and 50 bicycles — many adorned with hanukkiahs and banners exclaiming “Happy Hanukkah” — cruised down Fifth Avenue from Squirrel Hill and stopped traffic for several minutes along Forbes Avenue.

Later, students, community members and youth groups gathered in the ballroom of the William Pitt Union to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah with latkes and jelly-filled doughnuts. Chabad at Pitt, a Jewish student organization, and Hillel hosted the party to spread the feeling of happiness and charity that the holiday brings.

Chabad started the parade at its synagogue, the Lubavitch Center, in Squirrel Hill. The caravan traveled through Shadyside and Oakland before ending in Schenley Plaza, where Chabad members and others in the community gathered to light a giant hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah, feast on doughnuts and celebrate with friends and family.

“It’s beautiful to see us all getting together to share such joy and harmony to illuminate the world with kindness,” Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, a rabbi at Chabad for more than 40 years, said. “The message is that one good deed illuminates the world, so by lighting one candle, we illuminated the world.”

According to Rosenfeld, Chabad has been celebrating Hanukkah with a parade and a community gathering for 10 years. This is the fourth year they have observed the holiday in Oakland. Tonight, Chabad will host a similar gathering at the City-County Building where Mayor Peduto, who was traveling back from Paris Sunday night, will light the Hanukkah candles.

County executive Rich Fitzgerald lit the shamash — the center candle that is used to light the other candles — on Sunday and Rosenfeld lit the first candle of the holiday.

According to Pittsburgh police, about 150 people attended the celebration in Schenley Plaza.

For Chabad member Lieba Dlinn, 19, from Squirrel Hill, the Hanukkah parade has been a family tradition for as long as she can remember. Although her brother drives the car that led the parade and her father directs bicyclists, Dlinn missed the parade the past few years while she was living in Israel. While the size of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh is smaller, Dlinn said she felt the same sense of belonging.

“This is a glimpse of what it would look like if the whole Jewish community came together,” Dlinn said. “It’s so much fun, we like sharing the experience with others.”

After the lighting of the hanukkiah, the choir from the Yeshiva School, the Chabad boys’ school, performed Hanukkah-themed songs, and a Chabad congregation member juggled with apples and fire as he told a Hanukkah story. According to Rosenfeld, the performers, DJ and event organizers were volunteers.

Students gather in the William Pitt Union to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah. Kate Koenig | Staff Photographer

At Pitt, the main event of the evening was the lighting of the “Grand Canorah,” a giant hanukkiah made entirely out of cans. A Pitt tradition that began 17 years ago, the lighting of the Canorah is a public hanukkiah lighting intended to bring the community closer together through traditional holiday spirit.

To highlight the importance of giving during the holiday season, Hillel and Chabad collected cans to donate to the Pitt Pantry. Although the collection of cans has been part of the celebration for years, this is the first year that Hillel co-sponsored the event.

After people got plates of food and settled on the floor, Rabbi Shmuel Rothstein began the celebration by talking about the history of Hanukkah and lighting the Canorah.

In addition to the public lighting of the Canorah, Israel King, brother-in-law of Rabbi Rothstein, ran a booth that offered students the opportunity to light a personal hanukkiah. Although the public hanukkiah lighting is a way to connect with the community, the personal candle lighting is just as important, King said.

“A public menorah lighting is a statement that everyone can connect to spiritually,” King said. “Hanukkah, for an individual, is a personal revelation of light.”

For sophomore Ilana McAfoos, this personal hanukkiah lighting allowed her to celebrate and connect to her family and traditions from home.

“It’s something that my family has been doing forever,” McAfoos said. “Everyone in my family has their own menorah.”

For the first time, Hillel and Chabad accompanied the lighting of the Canorah with a carnival-style party. Jewish organizations set up tables with games and food, such as dreidel, challah, latkes and Hanukkah gelt — chocolate coins. Pitt’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu created a game at their booth using a frisbee to knock down stacks of cans in order to draw attention to the charity aspect of the celebration.

“I thought it would be a cool idea to get a lot of the younger kids involved,” sophomore Brian Ackerman, a brother in Sigma Alpha Mu, said. “We used cans because Hanukkah is about bringing life and light and being happy.”

Using cans as part of the game also highlighted the importance of charity during the holiday season. 

“One of the goals was to break the record of most cans donated to Pitt Pantry and that definitely captures the spirit of Hanukkah,” Ackerman said.

According to Meital Rosenberg, a junior and vice president of Hillel, Chabad is counting the cans to determine if Pitt students broke the record tonight but had not completed the counting by the time of publication.

The party gives students a chance to enjoy the holiday and meet new people from other organizations.

Although many groups hold celebrations individually, this year provided a new opportunity for organizations to meet and recognize the holiday together.

“It’s a good opportunity to come together and celebrate, which is kind of beautiful because it’s so rare that we can all be together,” Rosenberg said.

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