New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine welcomed more than 100 Jewish community members and Chabad-Lubavitch leaders to the State House in Trenton Tuesday night to mark the start of Chanukah. He was joined by state Attorney General Anne Milgram, members of the governor's cabinet and state senators.

In his opening remarks, Corzine, a Democrat, congratulated Jewish people across the state for lighting the menorah after the darkness of light arrives, a requirement of Jewish law.

"As the sun goes down, the illumination [of the Chanukah lights] will come into our hearts and into our world," he said.

To some, the Chanukah miracle is best celebrated in a synagogue or at home. But according to Rabbi Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America – a yeshiva and the Morristown, N.J., headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch of New Jersey – the message of Chanukah is truly universal.

"This is a celebration of the power of the human spirit to transform the negative into positive; to replace despair with hope and action," he said. And that can be achieved by all people, in every place, at any time.

Herson has been celebrating Chanukah with New Jersey's governors on both sides of the aisle for 26 consecutive years. He sees these public events as a force for religious tolerance in the state.

"There are towns in New Jersey in which Jews did not feel welcome until a short time ago," he said.

While he didn't mention any by name, the rabbi may have been referring to New Providence. The small town's mayor once sparked a media outrage by remarks that locals felt were veiled invitations to Jewish residents to up-and-move.

Following Trenton's lead, noted Herson, "even those towns are lighting public menorahs at" their city halls.

More than 100 Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and their families live and teach throughout New Jersey; by the end of the holiday, they will have sponsored more than 200 individual Chanukah celebrations.

A Celebration of Freedom

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Moshe Herson, left, dean of the Rabbinical College of America, shares a moment with New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, during a Tuesday night Chanukah celebration at the State House in Trenton.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Moshe Herson, left, dean of the Rabbinical College of America, shares a moment with New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, during a Tuesday night Chanukah celebration at the State House in Trenton.
At the State House, Rabbi Mendy Solomon of Chabad at Short Hills shared a medley of Chanukah favorites with the crowd. His singing prompted a group of high school students to begin dancing, and the governor joined the procession through the Assembly Chamber.

In his remarks commemorating the miracle of the Jewish people's victory against Greek oppressors more than 2,000 years ago, Corzine alluded to a miracle in his own life. He was in a serious car accident earlier this year and withstood significant injury.

"I'm glad to be standing here today," he began. "Actually, I'm glad to be standing anywhere at all."

For his part, Herson spoke about the power of Chanukah to continue bringing miracles into the world.

"Every act of kindness is a flame that pushes aside darkness," said Herson. Every person who lights a flame is performing a miracle for him or herself and for the world.

Joined by Herson, Corzine helped light the first candle of the Chanukah menorah as a group of students from the College of New Jersey in the audience stood shoulder-to-shoulder with World War II veterans.

The older attendees were part of a large group visiting from the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe with Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky, the center's co-director. For participant Sol Beck, joining the governor's Chanukah lighting was something unbelievable.

"This was not possible when I was growing up in Philadelphia," he commented. Back then, "we had a 'Festival of Light' story in school, but never a formal Chanukah lighting."

As the governor, state attorney general, state senators and rabbis were hoisted in a boom lift to light the giant menorah on the State House lawn, Beck added, "It's wonderful to see that we have this freedom in America. I wish there were even more people who could see this."

The frigid temperatures and falling snow did nothing to stop the large crowd from celebrating. But after the lighting, Corzine, with a joke, invited the guests back into the State House for a reception.

"By executive order," declared the governor, "get inside. It's snowing out here!"