S. Antonio, Texas’ landmark River Walk will be flooded in light this Chanukah as an expected 800 people, some travelling by specially-outfitted menorah-carrying barges, descend on the public waterway in a show of Jewish pride.
Organized by Chabad-Lubavitch of South Texas, the 13th-annual Chanukah on the River Walk is generating excitement among locals who expect this year’s celebration to be the best yet.
“It’s really fun and we just have a great time,” says Dr. Tova Rubin, a clinical psychologist who has attended the event with husband Robbie Greenblum and their children for the past seven years. “It’s the Jewish event of our town.”
Howard Feinberg, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of S. Antonio, couldn’t agree more. Nor, for that matter, could members of the southern city’s administration, who each year, underwrite the entertainment portion of the celebration.
“It’s an incredibly special event,” says Feinberg. Both locals and tourists “celebrate a major Jewish holiday in a festive way.”
This Dec. 5 bash will begin with a menorah parade of 10 barges, each holding 40 people, down the S. Antonio River. Co-sponsored by Federation, the Holzman Foundation, area businesses IBC, HEB and SWBC, and the S. Antonio Express-News, the cruise will give way to a menorah lighting at the Arneson River Theatre and concert by the Pardes Rock band.
According to Feinberg, people travel from all over the region to attend the event. (For more information about the holiday and a worldwide directory of Chanukah events, click here.)
“People saw the excitement and got on those boats,” he says of last year’s celebration. “It is really a beautiful opportunity to come together [and] utilize the beauty of the river.”
Frank Villani, cultural affairs manager for the city, says that the location is key to the party’s success.
“The life blood of S. Antonio is the river,” he explains. “It is the essence of the city of S. Antonio, the reason the city was founded.”
Previous years’ celebrations have included a giant menorah made out of building blocks.
First discovered in 1536, the S. Antonio River drew the attention of Spanish military planners and the country’s king ordered 400 families from the Canary Islands to settle along the river in 1723. Two centuries later, city planners sought to control the river’s flooding, eventually leading to the construction of the current two mile path of shops, restaurants and pedestrian walkways bordering each side of the river as it meanders through a series of bridges one story below street level.
The River Walk “makes S. Antonio special,” says Rubin, who grew up in Israel and New York. Turning to the city’s Jewish community, she adds: “It’s remarkable that such a small community has such a giant event.”
For Villani, a native of the Bronx, N.Y., who is not Jewish, seeing such celebrations is nothing new. Still, he says that for a city of 1.4 million people to host a giant Chanukah party for a minority community of about 10,000 people is nothing short of revolutionary.
“Many visitors stop by because they are intrigued,” he relates. “None of the performances are what they’re expecting to see on the River Walk.”
Villani says that every year, the menorah lighting and its recalling of a Jewish spiritual and military victory against the Syrian-Greeks thousands of years ago, leaves him inspired.
“Especially now, when so many people are out of work and trying to figure out true values, family sometimes gets lost,” says Villani. The menorah lighting, though, “helps us see a bridging of ages.”
This year, Mayor Julián Castro will light the menorah’s shamash candle, while a Jewish community member will light the candelabra’s other candles.
Rabbi Chaim Block, who founded Chabad-Lubavitch of South Texas 25 years ago, says that ever since the first river event in 1998, more and more people get excited for the annual Chanukah party.
“Back then, I was sitting and thinking that we did the same thing year after year,” he recalls. “so we decided to do something bold and out of the box to really excite the community.
“Why not put a menorah on a riverboat?” he chuckles.
For the 1998 river cruise, Block took the 40 kids from his Hebrew school and invited people to watch along the shore.
“We set sail singing Chanukah songs on one boat,” says the rabbi. “It electrified people and just sparked something in them.”
The following year, Block invited all of the city’s Jewish organizations to a meeting beforehand.
“Every synagogue could reserve a boat for its own community and we would all come together for a big parade,” he recalls.
Every year adds something more, says Block. He credits Chabad-Lubavitch of South Texas administrator Rabbi Yossi Marrus with “pulling together the details and executing a flawless program year after year.”
It’s vital that everyone feel included, he adds.
“Jewish kids and adults alike can feel that their traditions and heritage are being honored and respected,” says Block. “It gives them a sense of inclusion, belonging and Jewish pride.”