South Florida basketball fans got a taste of Chanukah this week as Jews from all over the Miami area flocked to American Airlines Arena the light the first candle on the menorah and celebrate Jewish Heritage Night.

Organized by area Chabad-Lubavitch centers, the event mirrored similar ones from years past, and other sports-themed heritage nights scheduled later this year elsewhere in the United States. For the Dec. 1 faceoff between the Miami Heat and the Detroit Pistons, almost 20,000 people stood and covered their hearts while, for the first time ever, a rabbi – Chaya Aidel Seminary Women’s college principal Rabbi Yossi Lebovics – sang the National Anthem.

Before tipoff, event organizers Rabbis Pinny Andrusier, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Southwest Broward; Alexander Kaller of the Chabad Russian Center of South Florida; and Chaim and Eli Lipskar of The Shul of Downtown Miami joined sponsors Guma Aguiar, Chen Tal and Craig Zinn center court.

“It’s really beautiful seeing everyone come together at an event like this,” commented Aguiar.

At half time, nearly 7,000 people crowded into the outdoor concourse of the East Plaza for the Grand Menorah Lighting, while the rest of the arena watched the ceremony indoors on the giant scoreboard.

Former Heat all-star Alonzo Mourning joined Aguiar for the lighting of the candelabra’s central candle known as the shamash, while boys from the Hebrew Academy Choir of Margate sang the blessings. Sammy Schulman, CFO of the Miami Heat, kindled the flame corresponding to the first night of Chanukah.

Afterwards, popular Jewish singer Dr. Laz took the stage and entertained the crowd with a Chanukah-themed rap and other Jewish songs. Accompanying him were the Sensations, a band comprised of special needs children from a nearby school.

The Miami Heat’s Jewish Heritage Night included a halftime menorah lighting outside the arena. (Photo: Mendy Bleier)
The Miami Heat’s Jewish Heritage Night included a halftime menorah lighting outside the arena. (Photo: Mendy Bleier)

The Heat’s colorful mascot “Burnie” donned a skullcap for the night, and joined a costumed Judah the Maccabi and several rabbis dancing wildly onstage as the crowd cheered and sang along.

“This is the future of Judaism,” said Rabbi Dovid Vigler, director of Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens. “People are seeing that you can be Jewish and hang out with Lebron James and still be proud of who you are. Synagogues are not the only place where Judaism is relevant; it permeates every aspect of our lives.”

The Heat clobbered the Pistons, 97-72, a trouncing the Heat’s broadcaster Eric Reed attributed to a blessing he received from Andrusier before the game.

“The Heat are up by 30 points,” he told fellow broadcaster Tony Fiorentino. “[The blessing] is working!”

“When the Heat catch on [to the power of a blessing],” quipped Kaller, “they might want to make every game Jewish Heritage Night.”