Bonfires. Picnic lunches. Parades and parks. Lag BaOmer is approaching—that springtime Jewish holiday marked with outdoor celebration and entertainment—and it comes early this year, on Sunday, April 28, the earliest it has been since 1899.

Snow is still falling in parts of North America. Nevertheless, Rabbi David Cohen in Montreal says volunteers are busy painting banners and building floats for the Great Parade and Festival, despite lingering snowdrifts.

“We believe in the power of positive thought, and are confident that we will have nice weather,” he says. “The Lag BaOmer parade has been a Montreal staple since the 1950s, and we would not dream of holding it off or canceling. This is a family tradition for thousands of folks. People who first participated as kids now bring their own children and grandchildren.”

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The same sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Yosef Moscowitz of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois, where a team of rabbis and volunteers is working feverishly to prepare for the Great Jewish Family Festival in Skokie, a suburb north of Chicago with a sizeable Jewish population.

“We are planning a full-blown outdoor parade and festival for a crowd of over 5,000 participants,” he says. “There will be an outdoor circus, dozens of rides, a real bonfire and other summer attractions. The T-shirts are being printed up, and with G‑d’s help, they will be worn under the warm sun.”

Aaron Kaplan, a Chicago father, says he and his children plan on attending, no matter the weather.

In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, however, where the streets are still piled with snow and the thermometer is just beginning to flicker above freezing, Rabbi Raphael Kats explains that he knew he could not plan an outdoor festival, and needed to think outside the box.

“It was quite a challenge, but we managed to locate a hall that was willing to have our family fun day with pony rides and a petting zoo—all indoors. And if the weather suddenly turns warm, the hall is adjacent to a park, so we can just move the festivities outside,” he says.

Keeping toasty on Lag BaOmer in Saskatchewan is always an enjoyable challenge.
Keeping toasty on Lag BaOmer in Saskatchewan is always an enjoyable challenge.

Lag BaOmer is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the end of a plague that took the lives of 24,000 Torah scholars in the second century CE. It is also the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century Torah teacher and mystic who authored the Zohar—the most important text of Kabbalah. The day is celebrated with outdoor bonfires and picnics, especially in Israel, and more recently also with parades and carnivals.

The first Lag BaOmer parade was held in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1953, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, addressed children—a tradition that would repeat itself whenever Lag BaOmer occurred on a Sunday. The parades were comprised of children from various chapters of Mesibos Shabbos, youth groups that would meet on Shabbat afternoons, and served to highlight the centrality of Shabbat observance in Jewish life.

Over the years, other cities began holding similar gatherings as well, and the parades grew to include marching bands and floats festooned with Jewish themes, often followed by carnivals with rides, concerts and food.

Since the Jewish calendar is tied to both the lunar and solar cycles, the Jewish dates fluctuate somewhat in relation to the secular calendar, much to the chagrin of school boards and employers. Thus, Lag BaOmer, which typically takes place in May, will be celebrated on April 28 for the first time since the first parade 60 years ago. (It fell on April 29 in 1955, 1975 and 1994; the last time it took place on April 28 was back in 1899.)

Leah Bergovoy, a Montreal mother, says she and her husband plan to bring their children, even if it means bundling them up. “The kids look forward to it all year,” she says. “The organizers do a great job every time making it so special. We would not dream of missing the parade and carnival.”

Public officials also plan to attend. Mike Cohen, City Councillor of Cote Saint-Luc, where the Montreal celebration will be held, says, “Over the years, we have enjoyed a particularly strong bond with Chabad. We dance on the street during Sukkot, and sing along to amazing presentations at Simchat Torah. We have the largest Jewish population per capita in North America, so events like this are truly important to celebrate.”

According to Rabbi Berel Mockin, head of the Chabad Lubavitch Youth Organization in Montreal, which sponsors the event there, “This is a day in which we celebrate Jewish unity and pride, with the sole purpose of coming together in a fun, positive and friendly atmosphere—and we invite everyone to participate.”

Celebrants in Skokie at last year’s Great Jewish Family Festival. (Photo: Ben Lapid)
Celebrants in Skokie at last year’s Great Jewish Family Festival. (Photo: Ben Lapid)