When the six-foot-tall Chanukah menorah belonging to the Tannenbaum Chabad House at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., was found vandalized, locals looked at the religious symbol – its bulbs broken, its branches smashed – as indicative of an undercurrent of anti-Semitism piercing the peace of their college town.

Such fears, however, were put to rest when, on the first night of Chanukah, university president Morton Schapiro flipped a switch to light the candelabra. Almost 200 students cheered him on in the demonstration of Jewish pride, one that echoed dozens of similar events. All across the country this week, university presidents and administrators have joined with campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis to celebrate the eight-day Festival of Lights.

“It was an electrifying scene,” describes Rachel Zinn, a Northwestern senior and president of the Chabad Student Executive Board. “And not just because we were lighting the electric menorah. It was electrifying because all these different people from different Jewish backgrounds were getting together on campus to be part of the Jewish community.

“It was especially exciting,” she adds, “because it was the first time we were rededicating the vandalized menorah.”

Schapiro’s presence was central to the celebration.

“It was a significant statement that he was there,” proffers Zinn. “When the president comes to light the menorah, it shows everybody that this really is an important way to reconnect with Jewish community.”

In a significant trend this Chanukah season, presidents at several high-profile and top-tier colleges – including Tufts University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and Florida International University – have lent their support to public menorah lightings. In addition, presidents of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, University of Iowa, and California State University, Chico; provosts from the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California; vice presidents from Binghamton University and Towson University; and the dean of the University of South Florida’s medical school were on hand for Chanukah celebrations at their schools.

A menorah from the local Chabad on Campus stands proudly at the Cross Cultural Center at SLU in Missouri for the school’s first Chanukah celebration.
A menorah from the local Chabad on Campus stands proudly at the Cross Cultural Center at SLU in Missouri for the school’s first Chanukah celebration.

A Campus First

And at SLU in Missouri, Jewish students and faculty held their first campus Chanukah celebration in recent memory, when Rabbi Hershey Novack, director of the local Chabad on Campus, erected a menorah in the Busch Student Center at the campus’ Cross Cultural Center. Campus vice president Manoj Patankar was in attendance, along with administrators.

According to Lisa Reiter, SLU’s director of Campus Ministry, “this was the first time in recent memory that an event like this took place on SLU’s campus. [It is] my hope that we could host a Chanukah or pre-Chanukah event annually in order to celebrate the hopefulness of this holiday.”

“It was a privilege working with the university, its Department of Campus Ministry and the Cross Cultural Center on this celebration,” says Novack.

“Chanukah represents the freedom of religion and overcoming tyranny,” explains Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, director of the Tannenbaum Chabad House. “At Northwestern, we embrace diversity. That the president is coming to celebrate the Jewish holiday with the Jewish community makes a huge statement that says goodness and kindness are truly the principles that are valued at a university.”

When Klein approached Shapiro to take part in the on-campus lighting, he agreed without hesitation.

“He rearranged his schedule to participate in the event,” notes Klein. “And that makes another important statement, especially coming from a top research university.”

The timing was also significant, coming after last month’s vandalism.

“Students were saddened,” informs Klein. “We felt violated and upset. But we didn’t want to make that the main focus of the menorah.

“Instead,” continues the rabbi, “the focus was on the rekindling of the menorah and perpetuating kindness in the world. The message is that even in the midst of exile and darkness, we’re ready to share our Jewish light to the world. Every day we increase that light, because we add another candle.”

University of Maryland president Wallace Loh talks about Chanukah at a public menorah lighting ceremony coordinated by Rabbi Eli Backman.
University of Maryland president Wallace Loh talks about Chanukah at a public menorah lighting ceremony coordinated by Rabbi Eli Backman.

Klein’s spiritual sentiment was echoed at University of Maryland, where last Wednesday, President Wallace Loh took part in the public Chabad menorah lighting. An estimated 150 students surrounded the nine-foot menorah as Loh, who’s held his post for just one month after leading the University of Iowa, helped kindle the first night’s flame. A party filled with latkes, music and dancing followed.

“Maryland is very accommodating to everyone,” says Rabbi Eli Backman, director of the Bais Menachem Chabad Jewish Student Center, informing that an estimated 6,000 Jewish undergrads attend the school. “The administration tries to go out of its way for students. When the president lights the menorah, it shows from the top down that there’s no reason for students to thrive within academic circles and not also be proud of their Jewish traditions.”

The university’s Student Government Association president Steven Glickman opines that the celebratory tradition of lighting the menorah can serve as a tool to unite students of diverse backgrounds.

“It’s a custom that engages the entire university community,” explains Glickman. “It’s important that the president come out to events like this because it sends the message that if the president is not embarrassed to come out and do this, then I shouldn’t be either. We light the menorah outdoors and we share the light with others.”