Rabbi Moshe Wilansky of Chabad of Maine lights a menorah in the plaza at City Hall in Portland on Thursday night, the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Dozens of people gathered outside Portland City Hall Thursday evening to light a giant menorah and mark the first day of Hanukkah.

They sang a traditional Hanukkah song, Maoz Tzur, threw chocolate coins in the air for children to collect and gathered inside for a meal of latkes, apple sauce and bagels.

The event is an annual one in Portland, where Chabad of Maine has been holding a public menorah lighting for 37 years to mark the start of the Jewish Festival of Lights.

But this year’s celebration took on special meaning as it comes amid the Israel-Hamas war and a rise in antisemitism.

“It’s very important, especially this year,” said Rabbi Moshe Wilansky, director of Chabad of Maine. “This year, with so much evil going on, we need a little bit of light to push away the darkness. Everybody can do it, adding goodness and kindness.”

It was a chilly 27 degrees as people gathered outside City Hall for the lighting ceremony wearing hats, mittens and light-up dreidel necklaces.


Wilansky told the crowd the story of Hanukkah, which celebrates the Jews’ defeat of Syrian Greeks who attempted to force the people of Israel to accept their culture and beliefs. And he asked them to “be the light” for people who aren’t able to celebrate.

“When you hold your candle to make a blessing over your menorah, close your eyes and think about the 4-year-old child right now in the dark tunnels beneath the ground unable to light her menorah,” he said. “Think about the 10-year-old who won’t be able to eat latkes tonight … and the 135 remaining hostages who are sitting in darkness on this holiday night. We need to be their light.”

The Israel-Hamas war, which started with Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7, has been a source of tension in Maine and nationwide.

People gather at the City Hall Plaza in Portland on Thursday night and listen to Rabbi Moshe Wilansky of Chabad of Maine after he lit a menorah on the first night of Chanukah. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

This week, Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley told the American Journal that he wouldn’t run for reelection following the controversial removal of a Star of David from the city’s holiday lights display. The decoration was removed following complaints from Arab American residents who found it to be offensive in relation to the war and ongoing conflict.

In October, dozens of people in Portland protested U.S. support for Israel, saying that nation’s response to the massive attack by Hamas was killing and injuring innocent Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.

At the same time, officials have warned of rising antisemitism. In May, the White House said that hate crimes against Jews accounted for nearly two-thirds of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S. in 2022, although Jews make up just over 2% of the population.


Some people who attended Thursday’s menorah lighting said the current political climate has them worried and wanting to connect more with community. Organizers said they also asked for extra police presence Thursday night.

“I don’t put my menorah in the window,” said Gretchen Halpert, 65. “I don’t advertise that I’m Jewish.”

When she attended the Maine Jewish Film Festival last month at the Portland Museum of Art, Halpert said she called ahead to make sure there would be security. Halpert said she, her mother and husband came to the menorah lighting for a sense of community.

“We’re inundated with Christmas, so it’s nice to have one thing that isn’t Christmas,” Halpert said. “Although I don’t want to say anything anti-Christmas. We like Christmas, too.”


Sara Fiorenza, of Auburn, came to the menorah lighting because it helps her feel closer to her family – her mother is Catholic and her father Jewish – who live in New York. “I’m really glad I was able to get out and come to this,” said Fiorenza, 30.

Fiorenza has been avoiding social media due to the current political climate. “I feel like community is needed now more than ever,” she said. “It’s nice to be here for a joyous event. I’m just really grateful this is happening.”

Levi Wilansky, an assistant rabbi at Chabad of Maine and Moshe Wilansky’s son, said the news of the war has been hard on Jewish people in Maine, but it’s also brought people together. “There’s lots of concern,” he said. “But there’s a lot of unity. I would say the community is stronger than it’s ever been. People are trying to connect more and making more of an effort to participate.”

He said this year’s message is that it’s extremely important to counter negativity with light. “We light the menorah to spread light, to spread kindness and goodness,” Wilansky said. “A little bit of light dispels enormous amounts of darkness. It doesn’t take much.”

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