Cedar City celebrates Jewish ‘festival of lights’ with first public menorah lighting

CEDAR CITY — Cedar City marked the second day of the Jewish “festival of lights” with its first-ever public menorah lighting on Monday.

Cedar City Mayor Garth Green lights the menorah, Cedar City, Utah, Dec. 19, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

Dozens of people gathered together at Mayor Square, bundled in their winter attire — some holding hot drinks to ward off the freezing weather and chill wind. Dance music played over the speakers and holiday decorations lit the evening celebration.

Rabbi Mendy Cohen from the Jewish Chabad Center in St. George took to the microphone to address the crowd. Many were Southern Utahns, but some had traveled from as far as New York.

“What a beautiful holiday to celebrate out in the cold like the mayor says,” he said. “And it’s beautiful to see. I don’t know who to blame for the cold but listen: I’m in sales, not management, so don’t blame me. Happy Hanukkah.”

Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, commemorates events that occurred about 2,000 years ago, Cohen said. The Syrian-Greek Seleucid Empire attempted to abolish the Jewish faith and force its followers to adhere to Greek traditions.  A small Jewish army, known as the Maccabees, rebelled against the Greek army and won.

“That was the first great miracle that took place,” he said.

Rabbi Mendy Cohen speaks at Cedar City’s inaugural menorah lighting, Cedar City, Utah, Dec. 19, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

However, when they recaptured the temple, they found it and the oils that had been prepared to light the menorah desecrated, Cohen said. It would take eight days to prepare new oil for the daily service.

They had found one bottle of unspoiled oil, which they expected to last a single day but burned for eight, Cohen said.

“And that’s the message of Hanukkah,” he said. “that when we’re faced with negativity, when we’re faced with a challenge, when we’re faced with antisemitism – whatever we’re faced with – we have the ability to overcome that with positivity, by showing light, the same way our ancestors did it thousands of years ago.”

The Roving Rabbis, manned by traveling rabbinical students in their “Mitzvah Tank,” joined the celebration. They helped to set up, danced – sometimes dressed in dreidel costumes – and sang with Cohen.

Mitzvah means good deed, Cohen said, and the Roving Rabbis plan to travel through Utah’s smaller communities to take Judaism to “their doorstep” by making themselves available to those who wish to pray, celebrate traditions, discuss Jewish history and other services.

One member of the group, Rabbi Mendy Hirsch, shared a Hanukkah message.

“Tonight, we join millions of Jews around the world for marking the second night of the festival of lights,” he said. “Families from across the globe are gathering together to kindle these incredible flames. That remarkably, against all odds, have lasted for thousands of years. How privileged we are to be able to light a menorah publicly and proudly without fear or worry, or discrimination. For this, we are thankful for the gift of living in the United States of America.”

Rabbi Mendy Cohen poses with David Karmeli in front of the menorah, Cedar City, Utah, Dec. 19, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

The purpose of the event was to “light up the night,” Hirsch said and asked the attendees to point to the menorah.

“You may be all pointing in the wrong direction,” he said. “The menorah is really inside each and every one of you. Everyone point to themselves. We have the light that it takes to light up the night when we have challenges.”

Next, Cedar City Mayor Garth Green spoke on the “delightful celebration,” in which he was participating for the first time, and the symbol of the menorah.

“May we use this symbol to create acts of goodness and kindness,” he said. “We can make a difference. I believe we light the middle candle first … And then the middle candle shares the light to all of the others. So it is with each of us. We’re given a little light by somebody – somebody shares a little light with us and then we go on sharing that little light with others.”

After speaking, Green lit the menorah’s middle candle, also known as the “shamash” or “helper.” Later, David Karmeli, who was representing Cedar City’s Jewish community, lit the other two candles.

Once the menorah was lit, Cohen led the group in singing a blessing and announced the gelt drop, where the Cedar City Fire Department threw chocolate coins into the audience. Gelt refers to a Jewish tradition where money is given as a gift during the Hanukkah celebration. Chocolate coins, like in this case, are sometimes used as a substitute.

Southern Utahns gather with out-of-state visitors for Cedar City’s inaugural menorah lighting, Cedar City, Utah, Dec. 19, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

Carianne Bell, a Cedar City resident, said she is Jewish by heritage and that the people she met there felt “like friends.”

“You feel a connection with your soul — you can’t explain it,” she said.

Additionally, Bell said she appreciates that the people of Cedar City had the opportunity to experience another culture.

Cohen said the event was just the beginning and that he hopes to host more in Cedar City, along with another menorah lighting next year.

“A lot of people reached out and wanted to make something happen,” he said. “So I was really excited and so glad that there’s so many people that came here to celebrate Hanukkah. It was beautiful to see.”

On Sunday, the Chabad Jewish Center also hosted St. George’s fifth annual menorah lighting in the St. George Town Square with an estimated 350 people in attendance, Cohen said. Multiple government officials attended, representing their various cities, including Washington City Mayor Kress Staheli, Ivins City Mayor Chris Hart and St. George City Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin.

People gather at St. George’s inaugural menorah lighting, St. George, Utah, Dec. 18, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

The St. George Fire Department participated in the gelt drop.

Cohen said that the community is growing on a weekly basis and is enthusiastic.

“It’s beautiful to see that we’re just blossoming and expanding, and we’re looking forward to a beautiful future over here in Southern Utah,” he said.

Those interested in learning more about worship services and activities at the Chabad Jewish Center, such as the Women’s Circle, the Children’s Mini Juda program and its youth programs, can visit its website, call 435-619-6630 or send them an email.

For information about the center’s upcoming events, including the Hakhel Community Hike & Brunch and other Hanukkah celebrations, click here.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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