Just after sundown on Sunday, December 18th, a large ice menorah is lit in downtown St. Petersburg’s South Straub Park to mark the beginning of Hanukkah.
This is the 20th year the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg has celebrated the start of the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights with its Hanukkah in the City event. But the act of lighting the menorah to bring light to the darkness has added meaning this year, says Rabbi Alter Korf. A surge of antisemitism has included comments and social media posts by celebrities and athletes. The Anti-Defamation League says 2021 brought a record number of incidents of harassment, vandalism or violence against Jewish people in the U.S. The Jewish civil rights organization expects similar numbers for 2022.
“It’s a sign,” Korf tells the crowd of hundreds gathered for the event. “It’s an indication that we have to amplify the light in the darkness. We have to amplify that which is good. If you see darkness, it may be because we’re not doing enough good in the world, enough light, and we have to redouble our efforts. So many of you have said to me that you’re disheartened by the antisemitism and the hatred…The way we fight darkness is with more light.”
Korf urges the crowd to counter hateful speech on social media by lighting their home menorah and posting a photo with the hashtag #sharethelight.
Before lighting the first candle of the ice menorah at Hanukkah in the City, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch rejects antisemitism in his comments to the crowd.
“Part of being blessed is realizing we are a community who welcomes all,” Welch says. “We are a community of multiple faiths and we all have to work together to move forward. And I shouldn't have to say it, but in these times I need to say it, the Jewish community is a part of St. Petersburg. When we say, ‘We are St. Pete,’ we mean everyone.”
The celebration includes traditional music and dancing and a performance by fire dancers. A few days earlier, the tone was more serious. The Chabad Jewish Center convened a community meeting to discuss a positive response to the wave of antisemitism, launching an Ambassadors of Light initiative.
“One of the participants said ‘I’m going to love being Jewish 100 times more than anyone hates me for it,’” Korf recalls. “I think that really captures the sentiments and the movement of Ambassadors of Light. There are many ways to deal with negativity and hate. One is to engage with it. The reality is that approach gives it more fuel and it puts us in the mindset of dealing with the negativity. It clouds our own feelings and thoughts and drags us down and creates a heaviness within us. The other approach is to double our efforts to amplify that which is good. That’s what we’re focusing on, using the holiday of Hanukkah to channel that energy to amplify that which is good and that which is light. We can be responding all day to hateful things on social media or we can avoid giving it any extra oxygen and rather channel our message to help feel proud of who they are.”
The Ambassadors of Light program will send volunteers to visit the elderly and homebound and to deliver menorah kits. Korf says members of the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg are also opening their homes to host Hanukkah celebrations.
“We’re going to take the negativity and channel it in a positive way,” he says.
For more information, go to Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg