Vehicles head down Bancroft Street in Portland Dec. 10 as part of Chabad of Maine’s car-top menorah parade. The event, a first-ever in the state, kicked off the first night of Hanukkah, which runs through sundown Friday. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Taking a nearly 50-year-old New York City tradition and making it their own, Chabad of Maine found a pandemic-safe way this year to share Hanukkah’s message of light and hope with the Portland community.

As a kickoff to the eight-day celebration, Chabad of Maine held a menorah parade last Thursday, with 25 vehicles parading from the organization’s building on Pomeroy Street to Congress Street for the annual lighting of the giant menorah in front of City Hall.

Benjamin Gelassen, of Portland, affixes a large menorah on the roof of his car Dec. 10.

The idea of a menorah parade dates back to 1973, when a group of New York City residents organized the first one to increase awareness about the Jewish holiday. It is the first time it has been has offered by Chabad of Maine, part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, one of the largest Jewish outreach organizations in the world.

“Menorah parades are more common in larger states like New York or Florida,” said Chabad of Maine Director Rabbi Moshe Wilansky. “This year we figured because of the pandemic, we thought this would be something people could safely participate in and watch. We have a 4.5-mile route for people to see the light of Hanukkah.”

Wilansky said it was important for him to find a public way to celebrate Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem after it had been taken over by the powerful Syrian army in the year 164 BCE. Legend has it that the oil on hand was expected to light the temple for one night, but it lasted eight.

“Everyone should know about the special miracle of Hanukkah,” he said.

Chabad of Maine’s parade and menorah lighting was part of a larger effort by Chabad-Lubavitch to reach 8 million Jews in 100 countries. The international effort included outfitting more than 6,500 cars with rooftop menorahs and lighting 15,000 large public menorahs all over the world, including in front of notable landmarks such as the White House in Washington, D.C., the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow.

Sarah Kelley, of Freeport, took part in the Portland parade to help her two young children, who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, understand their Jewish faith.

“I grew up in an area where there were Jews everywhere,” Kelley said as she waited Thursday for the parade to start. “My kids don’t really know many Jewish people. We go to the temple sometimes, but I wanted them to feel this was an important part of their life because I am raising them with a mixture of faiths.”

Normally, Benjamin Gelassen, of Portland, would take part in a large traditional celebration this time of year, but felt the parade and socially distant menorah lighting at City Hall was a good alternative.

“I felt this was an innovative way and safe way to celebrate the holiday,” he said as he strapped a menorah atop his car.

While Chabad of Maine was able to find a safe way to offer an opportunity to congregate in person, the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine took to technology to bring the community together for a Hanukkah celebration. On Saturday it co-sponsored “Hanukkah, Together,” which virtually brought together rabbis and other members of the faith from across the state.

“This is a year unlike any other, but the community is finding many ways to maintain connection and celebrate together,” said Molly Curren Rowles, executive director of Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.

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