ST. PETERSBURG — As the sun set over south Straub Park Sunday night, hundreds of flickering candles fought against a breeze coming off the marina as a giant menorah burst into light.
Members of the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg shared the flame from their small, hand-held candles with curious passersby at their 10th annual, free Chanukah Extravaganza. The Chabad’s Festival of Lights has grown year after year from just a small gathering off BayWalk to an attraction that brought in about 350 people this year, said Rabbi Alter Korf, director of the Chabad Jewish Center.
“It’s a way to make connections with people in a public space where they can feel comfortable whether they’re religious or not,” Korf said. “You see people from all walks of life come together and get to know each other, which just makes for a beautiful celebration.”
Another familiar face around the menorah was St. Petersburg’s mayor-elect Rick Kriseman, the city’s first Jewish mayor in roughly 30 years. Kriseman was an honored guest at the first event 10 years ago, when the menorah almost toppled over in the wind. Though the first few weeks since his election have been a whirlwind of public appearances and first attempts, the lighting was a can’t miss event, Kriseman said. The Chabad’s annual menorah lighting is the only public Chanukah celebration in the city.
“It would be nice to get to a point, especially when the holidays coincide, we could combine events so this is as big and important for our Jewish community as the annual tree lighting is,” Kriseman said. “There are lots of little things we could do, like adding more Jewish decorations like dreidels in the park, to be more inclusive, because this is a very diverse community with people of all religions and I would like to see that celebrated more.”
Marlene Barocas stood in the shadow of a giant Nativity scene as she watched the festivities unfold with her husband and guests from Massachusetts. Unlike the many dog walkers and children that filtered in and out of the event, the St. Petersburg resident made a special trip to the park to watch the lighting. For her, the holiday is about heritage.
“It’s kind of nice because we live in a very Christian world, so a little bit of something makes us feel more like a part of the community,” said Barocas. “Chanukah itself isn’t one of the major holidays, but it’s still an opportunity to come together with family and appreciate what you have and where you come from.”
The Chabad is all about giving back to the community, regardless of religion, Korf said. This year, internationally-known Jewish rock band Pardes was added to the lineup of bouncy houses, face painting, crafts and traditional Jewish fare such as hot brisket sandwiches, jelly donuts and knishes to bring even more visibility to the event.
Though traditionally Jews lite a candle on the menorah each of the eight nights of Chanukah to rededicate their Temple, Korf said he hopes this year can symbolize a rededication of the Jewish community’s and the Chabad’s dedication to being a light to the community, especially under Kriseman’s leadership.