The menorah lighting at BayWalk, begun on the shopping plaza's periphery four years ago, has outgrown the spot and will move into the courtyard this year.
The event, a celebration of Hanukkah - the Jewish Festival of Lights - will take place on the fourth night of the holiday and include a concert and traditional latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts. Organizers are expecting as many as 600 people.
"It has grown exponentially over the years,'' said Rabbi Alter Korf, who began organizing the event in 2002. "People are asking months in advance, when is it going to be, so they can block it out on their calendar.
"It has become a very big event and undertaking, but we feel that it is very important and it contributes much to the holiday spirit and celebration.''
The public menorah lighting and celebration have special symbolism. Hanukkah, which begins at sundown Dec. 15 and lasts eight days, commemorates religious freedom, preservation of Jewish faith and culture and the miracle of the temple oil that burned for eight days.
While its message is important, rabbis say the holiday is a relatively minor one on the Jewish calendar. In America, though, with Hanukkah's proximity to Christmas, the celebration has taken on additional meaning.
"I think, especially for children, where they are very much influenced by what they see around them and what their peers are doing, trading gifts and getting ready for a Christmas party, it's almost natural for a child to want to do the same things,'' said Korf, the father of four young children.
"It's important at the same time that we convey a message to our children that you don't have to shed who you are. You also have beautiful traditions and it's not something you need to limit to your home because you may not feel comfortable. In fact, you can have a beautiful celebration right in the heart of the city. That was one of the motives for us to have the Hanukkah celebration and menorah lighting at BayWalk.''
Hanukkah commemorates the heroism of the Maccabean Jews, who in 165 BCE defeated their oppressors, the Syrian-Greeks. Jews were forbidden to practice their religion under the rule of Antiochus IV, but a small band of fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, fought to preserve their religion and culture. They recaptured the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which the Syrian-Greeks had defiled with idol worship and pagan sacrifices. When the Maccabees sought to rededicate the temple, however, they found only one cruse of undefiled oil to kindle the eternal light. Miraculously, the oil that was enough for just one day lasted for eight.
In commemoration, Jews light a new candle on the nine-branched menorah, or candelabrum, for eight consecutive days. The ninth candleholder is for the shamas, or servant candle, which is used to kindle the other tapers. The holiday is celebrated with gifts, including Hanukkah gelt, which takes the form of chocolate coins or cash. Games are played with the dreidel, a four-sided top. The miracle of the oil is also celebrated by eating latkes or potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts. They are foods fried in oil.
Korf, who heads the Chabad Jewish Center at 6151 Central Ave. with his wife, Chaya, promises something new at this year's celebration. As is customary, there will be a giant menorah. On Dec. 18, however, the large menorah will be made entirely of balloons. Korf said it will be designed with receptacles at the top for safe lighting.
As in past years, Chabad Jewish Center also will provide giant electric menorahs for Publix supermarkets to display. It's part of the organization's outreach efforts to the Jewish community. Those efforts this year will include a winter day camp from Dec. 25 to 29. It's a service to the Jewish community and will offer an opportunity for children who don't get formal Jewish training throughout the year to learn about their roots, Korf said.
One of the most beautiful things about America, he said, is the freedom to worship as one pleases.
"We can each be who we are, side by side,'' he said. "We take it for granted today, but not long ago, one would be degraded because of the traditions they hold dear.
"The message of the holiday is one of tolerance and respect, the freedom to be who you are and to follow the traditions of your people.''
IF YOU GO
Ceremony, music and food
Fourth Annual Chanukah Extravaganza and Concert, 5:30 p.m., Dec. 18, in the courtyard of BayWalk, Second Street N and Third Avenue, St. Petersburg. Public menorah lighting and concert featuring Dr. Laz and the Rockin' Rabbis. There will be latkes, Hanukkah gelt, hot chocolate, doughnuts, balloon sculptures and raffles. Free. Parking available in MidCore garage. Call 344-4900 or visit www.ChabadSP.com.
Gan Israel Winter Camp for children 5 to 12, Dec. 25-29, with individual day options available. The camp runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with extended day care. Daily trips, sports, Jewish pride, crafts, food decorating and more. Lunch and snacks. Call 344-4900 or www.ChabadSP.com/wintercamp.