Sand menorahs, ice menorahs, a tiki menorah in Hawaii … unique, to be sure. But now comes an even more unusual element to the Chanukah mix.

On Dec. 3, the seventh night of the holiday, folks will gather in San Francisco’s Union Square for a very special celebration. Serving as a vessel for the lighting of the 22-foot-high “Mama Menorah” will be a 5.5-foot-tall robot named “Isaac.”

While only a real-life Jewish human being can perform the mitzvah of lighting a menorah, “robots were created to assist in doing good deeds in this world,” says Rabbi Yosef Langer, director of Chabad of San Francisco. And this robot will be helping Langer light what in 1975 was one of the first public menorahs outside of Israel.

The robot was made possible by Ken Goldberg, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, as well as a researcher of robotics, automation and new media, who noted that he and Langer had a hunch that Isaac would "generate some interesting new sparks."

As Chabad gets busy for public menorah-lightings in city centers, suburbs and small towns around the world, Jewish communities are readying for a week of Chanukah-related festivities.

The goal is to do “whatever we can do to enhance the flame, enhance the miracle, to bring people closer, to put attention on what’s going on,” explains Langer. “And then I came up with this idea of, ‘Let’s do a robot lighting the menorah!’ ”

"Robots were created to assist in doing good deeds in this world,” says Langer.
"Robots were created to assist in doing good deeds in this world,” says Langer.

As the crowd gathers that night—many will hold Chanukah candles—the rabbi will light the leader candle with a torch. “Isaac” will greet the crowd and create some buzz. The rabbi and the robot will then ascend the scaffolding to the longtime, mahogany-and-steel Bill Graham menorah—which weighs a whopping 3 tons—where “Isaac” will kindle the shamash – the "attendant" candle that is used to kindle the other lights of the menorah.

Everyone will become a part of the glow, says the rabbi, adding that Chabad will be also handing out menorahs for people to take home and use.

Another Creative Turn to the Evening

As if that weren’t enough, this year has another twist, he says. Before lighting the menorah, he annually asks those assembled who among them needs a miracle or knows someone who does. Hands always shoot up. This year, Langer is going to have them write those miracles down.

Cue the burning bush. There will also be a nine-branch burning bush sculpture made from LED light-filled 30-foot-tall fiberglass towers. It’s an adaptation of an installation sculpture made by Mauricio Bustos, an area artist who does projects in his spare time.

Sharing the flame with children on the first night of Chanukah.
Sharing the flame with children on the first night of Chanukah.

“The big thing for me is that it’s great to get people out into the community,” says Bustos.

Local artist John Baden has created three large-scale "Miracle Vessels" under Langer’s art direction to welcome messages asking for a miracle to be dropped off (emailed to: miraclelightnow@gmail or called in to 415-533-9990. The rabbi plans to transport all requests to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

David Calkins plans to be in the crowd that night. Involved in robotics for 15 years and a former professor of robotics at San Francisco State University, he was the one who built “Isaac.” Motors and sensors will allow the robot to take part in the ceremony, along with an 8-inch flame that will replace the robot’s hand.

The rabbi will light the master flame and then the robot will, in turn, light the "attendant" candle off of the flame-thrower, explains Calkins, adding that a little canister of camping fuel and an igniter like those found in stoves are the key pieces for the process.

The two-year-old robot—“made out of aluminum and love,” says Calkins, and which runs off a LEGO Mindstorms brick—undergoes constant revision. And he is indeed pretty nifty: “Isaac” can shake hands, say hello and spark the imagination.

“The shoulders can go up and down and the elbows can go up and down, the hands can open and close, his head can turn, he can talk, he can move,” continues Calkins, rattling off the robot’s numerous skills. “There’s a speaker in the back, and he’s programmed to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’"

But for the lighting next Tuesday, “we’ll change it to say: ‘Ask for Miracle Now.’ ”