Public menorah displays for Chanukah date back to the mid-70s in the US, with the first public menorah in 1974 in Philadelphia and then another much, much larger one in 1975 in San Francisco, both part of the CHABAD movement. In more recent times families, synagogues, and communities have begun to build oversized menorahs with children’s participation. Whether this is a manifestation of an attempt to build and create a large holiday decoration at least equal in size to the Christmas trees we see around us is a moot point. It’s enough to happily proclaim: “We are Jews. It’s Chanukah! This is fun! This menorah, this ‘Hanukkiah’ is ours and we are proud of it and ourselves.”
The creative aspects of this are astounding, with the materials as varied as one can imagine, using whatever’s around the house, or around Home Depot. Whatever is the ‘toy of the year’ with the capability of infusing the creation with color and light, and with the help of all hands capable of participation – that works, too. If, on Sukkot, all hands can decorate the sukkah, so too on Chanukah the Hanukkiah can be created by young and old alike. There is noting like experiential education to encourage and add spark to any learning.
What a brainstorm, when architect, Stephen Schwartz, of Livingston, NJ, thought of using LEGO building blocks as the perfect material for a large group model building activity, in this case — a giant, Giant, GIANT, menorah! One that could be assembled with some planning and direction in a relatively short amount of time, and even taken apart in a very short amount of time.
As Schwartz explained to me this past Sunday morning at Temple Beth Torah in Westbury, NY, this idea came to him eighteen years ago. His daughter, then a second grade teacher, invited him to her class to discuss architectural models. He realized that the 3D aspect which LEGO could provide, aided learning. That “AHA” moment was given a new twist when he combined it with Jewish learning. He has been invited to create and build giant menorahs with students up and down the east coast of the US ever since.
I also learned that via BUILDING BLOCKS WORKSHOPS Stephen Schwartz offers several architectural programs, including secular options, such as the designing of historic towns and the architecture of a community, and also including those with Jewish themes: Jerusalem, Masada, Beit Hamikdosh, the Warsaw Ghetto, Shushan Purim, and this one – building the tallest LEGO Menorah. Heads up: Ours today, just about 13’ 6” tall! Hands on experiences such as this, prove that Jewish education is alive and well, despite studies to the contrary, and despite negative influences on all education by Common Core standards.
What I witnessed on Sunday was … just AWESOME! Close to 50 students in the Hebrew School, and some parents, perhaps some grandparents too, and younger siblings sat around tables, and on the floor.
With buckets and buckets of LEGO blocks, all provided by Stephen Schwartz as part of the program, the students were challenged to work in teams and to design and create platforms of a certain size and shape which, when locked together, could serve as the GIANT tower on which a magnificent menorah would be added within the two hour time frame. They eagerly took on the challenge!
I did not see even one child uninvolved! In groups, they planned their LEGO masterpieces. Some Magen David paper patterns were provided to include within the LEGO building, but some groups just planned their finished products around some color scheme. Not even the tables in the back of the room holding the various games and prizes awaiting a raffle drawing enticed the children! Not even the scent of carb filled latkes and other goodies filling the air called to them. They were ENGAGED!
Visible in the sanctuary, was a very intricately designed Hanukkiah waiting patiently on a table. A magnificent model, approximately 4’ tall and 5’ wide, it sat there brought in advance. I tentatively tested it. Whew! The LEGO blocks, 4,000 in this model alone, were very tightly held together; the entire piece needed careful handling! On the bimah, a huge ladder stood open, awaiting this final product’s raising and installation as the crown atop the students’ LEGO towers.
Like a conductor in front of an orchestra, Schwartz moved about the groups, encouraging, helping, suggesting, explaining. Each team knew what it was after, and hurried to comply with a finished product, proudly carrying theirs towards the bimah as the time grew shorter.
Rabbi Katz and Cantor Fleigelman stood off to the side, observing from afar, as did the Hebrew School teachers and members of the Mens Club, which sponsored the event. This was the children’s important work and the children knew it! I chatted with the synagogue president for a few minutes who remarked, “This guy is as in demand as a mohel!” I could see why.
Then it was the final moment! The various Hanukkiah bases were completed and placed on the bimah. First, a wide base of LEGO bases formed the bottom layer and then Schwartz carefully mounted the ladder adding section to section to section, climbing higher and higher, the tower created by interlocking all the groups’ LEGO creations.
It was so enjoyable to view each team’s unique tower section, the LEGO colors defining the pattern the students had created. The diversity of the individual patterns distinct and beautiful, just as we see among the Jewish people of the world. All heads turned upwards as the magnificent LEGO Hanukkiah previously constructed was lifted and affixed to the top of the tall tower, its two wax candles ready to light for the first eve of Chanukah. Ooohs and ahhs were heard. Rightly so.
Schwartz lit the candles, Cantor Fleigelman led all in song and prayer. I dare say that those participating will remember this GIANT Hanukkiah and their part in its creation. We proclaimed that we are Jewish and it is our holiday! We rejoice in the realization that we do not have to pray or play dreidel in secret cellars as did the Jews of Spain, as a diversion to the authorities during the times of the Spanish Inquisition.
All that work required deconstruction, so that Stephen and his wife, Bunny, could take this magnificent event on the road to the next venue on their schedule. While a few adults helped and took all the tower structures apart and Stephen packed up the Hanukkiah top section, the children enjoyed their well-earned latke lunch.
What a start to Chanukah! I may become a groupie and follow this show on the road. The ‘ruach’ was infectious.
Stephen Schwartz can be reached at: BUILDING BLOCKS WORKSHOPS. There’s always next Chanukah or a piece of Jewish history for students to more fully explore through architecture and hands on learning.