At 18 years of age, Wyatt Hall wouldn't be most people's first pick when asked who organized a history-making public menorah lighting ceremony, thought to be the state of Mississippi's first, this past Chanukah.

But Hall, who has a wealth of ambition, an abundance of Jewish pride, and a hunger for learning, isn't your typical public high school student.

On Dec. 9, he presided over a menorah lighting in Gulfport, Miss., attended by the city's non-Jewish mayor, Brent Warr. In 2005, the coastal city was hit hard by a 30-food storm surge from Hurricane Katrina, which killed 300 and destroyed thousands of homes.

Hall, a senior at the nearby Ocean Springs High School, organized the event to bring hope to the town, still reeling from skyrocketing unemployment and poverty triggered by Katrina.

"By lighting the Chanukah lights, we recognize that the world in which we live is not an end in itself, but exists to serve a higher spiritual purpose," Hall said during the ceremony, quoting the teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

He added: "May we merit to transform the world into a place only of light, when all the world will fully realize the G‑dliness inherent in all things, with the coming of our righteous Moshiach."

Up until a few years ago, however, such revealed religious devotion wasn't a part of Hall's life. Raised by his Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, he took on the observance of Shabbat and Judaism's strict dietary laws just two years ago. See him walking down the street, though, and he looks like a Lubavitch Chasid, sporting a beard and hat.

Years in the Making

Wyatt Hall address the crowd at Mississippi’s first-ever public menorah lighting.
Wyatt Hall address the crowd at Mississippi’s first-ever public menorah lighting.

According to Hall, Rabbi Mendel Rivkin, program director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana in the nearest big city of New Orleans, has a lot to do with his spiritual focus. The rabbi even helped Hall out with the Chanukah event, supplying him with some ideas, although he won't take all the credit.

"Really, this is something that he pulled off on his own," Rivkin demurred.

Hall met Rivkin some three years ago when the teen's family moved from Las Vegas. It was there that Hall made his first contact with Chabad-Lubavitch, deciding on his own to attend the local Camp Gan Israel.

"So I started going to Chabad in Las Vegas and started becoming more observant personally," recalled Hall.

Soon after his move to the Gulf Coast, he went to Mendel and Malkie Rivkin's house for Shavuot, and soon started making the trek every week for Shabbat.

After the Rivkins' house was flooded out by Katrina, Hall began staying at the home of the rabbi's parents, Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana co-directors Rabbi Zelig and Bluma Rivkin. The combined experience at both locations set out a course for him of proper Shabbat observance.

Lara and Ron Hall have apparently embraced their son's dedication to Yiddishkeit. They paid for the renting of Gulfport parklands for the menorah lighting, and the father, director of banquets and catering at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Miss., helped his son get $700 in funding from the resort for the ceremony. The money was used to purchase the six-foot menorah and to pay the Kosher Cajun restaurant which catered the event from their Metairie, La., shop.

Hall admits, though, that his focus on religious observance has at times created some upheaval at home. He said the most taxing part for him and them was buying new pots and pans. "It was very stressful," he explained, "after so many years cooking for me." He emphasized that through it all, his parents have been nothing but supportive.

Turning back to the menorah lighting, Hall called it a blessing for the people of southern Mississippi.

"Many people said that it was very refreshing, after so many years, to see a vibrant Jewish celebration here," said the teen. "Mississippi is one of the last states in the country without a Chabad House. I actually don't even think there's an [Orthodox] rabbi in the whole state."

If Hall gets his way, he might be the state's first resident Chabad rabbi, but acknowledges that that's a way off. For the time being, he's waiting for a response to his application to Yeshiva Ohr Echanon Chabad in Los Angeles, where he hopes to attend next year. He wants to continue organizing the menorah lighting, though, even from afar and eventually wants to return to give back to the community some of what he will have learned.

Mendel Rivkin raved about his protégé, who studies Torah and Chasidic discourses with him.

"Hall does a lot on his own," said the rabbi. "He's self-taught to a degree and very motivated."