At Chabad of Clearwater, the congregation usually has fun with Hanukkah, from lighting a marshmallow menorah one year to making one out of oranges in front of a Clearwater Beach surf shop. This year is different.
The rabbi for the Clearwater congregation commissioned a carpenter to help mark the start of the eight-night holiday with a big party and a huge menorah crafted to look like the Star of David to signify their surge of Jewish pride.
Hanukkah begins at sundown Thursday, and the holiday arrives as the world continues to watch the war between Israel and Hamas and as marches and protests — including during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade — erupt around the world on both sides of the conflict.
The holiday marks the time Jews celebrate their victory over a tyrant king and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. As the story goes, a small quantity of oil was meant to light the temple’s menorah and it miraculously lasted eight days. For Hanukkah, on eight consecutive nightfalls, Jews gather with family and friends to light one additional candle in the menorah.
“The answer to the darkness of the tragedy in Israel is an increase of light and Jewish pride that will all be on full display this Hanukkah,” Rabbi Levi Hodakov said. “We will celebrate loud, and we will celebrate proud.”
On the first night of Hanukkah at a special gathering in Clearwater’s Coachman Park, there will be prayers if there still are hostages in Hamas custody, as well as songs, food and a program billed as a way to “unite through light in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel.”
Hodakov, 49, has been the director of the Chabad of Clearwater since 2011. He is not alone in feeling a deeper connection to Hanukkah and his congregation this year. He said he has seen a surge in attendance at his services and in Torah classes since the war began.
A recent survey by Chabad.org, the worldwide Jewish information center, found a huge uptick in Jewish engagement in the two months since war erupted in Israel. The vast majority of rabbis across America have seen an increase in attendance at Jewish programs and services, as well as a heightened sense of Jewish pride, the survey found. More than 77% reported that they have seen a stronger sense of “Jewish pride and confidence” among community members and 93.4% said they are witnessing a stronger feeling of connection and “desire to connect to other Jews.”
Hodakov said it felt obvious that they had to do something different this year, saying “unique times call for a unique menorah.”
Jeffrey Cain, 59, is the carpenter that the rabbi tapped for the project and he said it holds deep meaning for him as a Jewish man, but the project posed a bit of a challenge as his first large-scale menorah. He will have to wrestle with the giant pine star to get it set up in the park “and hope it doesn’t tip over.”
“I welcomed it with open arms especially because I feel strongly about what is happening in the Middle East,” said Cain, who runs the Clearwater-based home and garden firm Recovery Works of Florida. “It is a great opportunity to build a menorah, and it has to be exactly right.”
The Star of David menorah will be set up near the waterfront in Coachman Park. There will be a live concert by New York artist Yitzchok Friedman, as well as a visit by Tampa Bay Lightning mascot ThunderBug, a chocolate gelt drop by the Clearwater Fire Department and the Nerdy Noah Show. The event features free drinks, potato latkes and doughnuts.
The Chabad also is having a family party at Celebration Station on the seventh night of Hanukkah, Dec. 13.
“The message of Hanukkah is universal,” Hodakov said. “It’s a very simple message of light over darkness, good over evil and how just a little bit of light will dispel a lot of darkness.
“Every single night we add one more candle, so we keep adding to the light,” he said. “It symbolizes the progress we make as every day we try to be better people, better citizens. We cannot be satisfied with yesterday. God expects more from us and tomorrow we will do a little more to bring more light into the world.”
If you go
Mega Hanukkah Celebration: For the first night of Hanukkah, Chabad of Clearwater will light a 7-foot menorah crafted into the image of the Star of David. There will be a concert, a chocolate gelt drop, drinks, potato latkes and doughnuts. 5 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 7). Coachman Park, 301 Drew St., Clearwater. Free, though they request RSVPs at jewishclearwater.com.
Hanukkah Spectacular: The menorah will be lit for the seventh night of Hanukkah and there will be a kosher hot dog dinner and drinks, as well as bungy jumping, laser tag, go-karts and bumper boats. $20 for play card and dinner; $10 dinner only. 4 p.m. Dec. 15 at Celebration Station, 24546 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater. Get tickets at jewishclearwater.com. 727-265-2770.