HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA — (LNS) The sky turned a red hue, the smell of shish-kabob wafted through the air and the sound of singing hovered over the water. But this gathering was no ordinary barbecue.

Two hundred adults and children gathered here to celebrate Lag B'Omer, the yahrtzeit, the day of passing, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Talmudic scholar and author of the quintessential work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar.

Children of all ages and backgrounds sang and danced around a bonfire in celebration of both the Torah and of being Jews.

Lag B'Omer is the thirty-third day of the omer period, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuos, when God gave the Torah to Moses. Because of Rabbi Shimon's great scholarship and contributions to Torah learning, the day of his passing is marked by children - according to Jewish tradition the named guarantors of the Torah.

This scene duplicated itself around the globe on city streets, and in suburban parks. Jewish children and adults marched in parades, attended picnics, and hosted outings in celebration of Lag B'Omer. But it was not always like this. Years ago, public celebrations of Lag B'Omer were virtually unknown.

Newly arrived in the United States, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson organized an unheard-of event: a parade of Jewish children on Purim of 1943. Drawing a parallel between Hitler and Haman's intentions to annihilate the Jews, the future Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke of the children's contribution to the Purim miracle. At the risk of losing their lives, Mordechai taught tens of thousands of children the value in studying Torah. Their vigilance and courage hastened the downfall of Haman. The Rebbe urged all Jews to gather and study Torah. "Complete redemption lies in our own hands," the Rebbe said. "There is no place for despair."

This message was not merely reflective, it was vital for the uplifting of spirits and motivating good deeds. And it was only to strengthen over the next fifty years. In the 1950's, the Purim parade was changed to a Lag B'Omer parade. An annual event in New York, it gradually grew in popularity around the world.

"Judaism, at that time," Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, Lubavitch emissary in Baltimore, Maryland and a frequent commentator on the cable television Lag B'Omer broadcasts said, "was not something you took outdoors. The public face of the celebrations, that Jews were not embarrassed to express being Jewish outwardly, made the Lag B'Omer festivities revolutionary."

Lag B'Omer became an international day of exhibiting Jewish pride and unity. This year, Chabad Houses from Colorado to Kazakhstan, and Arizona to Australia organized parades, picnics, and bonfires.

In West Orange, New Jersey, a child of three had his first haircut with over 150 people each snipping a piece of hair. The upsherenish, Yiddish for haircut, was part of Rabbi Boruch Klar's Lag B'Omer festivities which also included a bonfire and birthday cake for all of the guests.

According to custom, a boy's hair is not cut until his third birthday. But during the omer, considered a time of mourning, haircuts are not permitted. This dates back to the era of the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva, when thousands of his students were killed in a plague. The plague finally ceased on the thirty-third day, Lag B'Omer, giving way to joyous events such as weddings and other such life cycle celebrations on this day.

Most of the crowd at Rabbi Klar's had never celebrated Lag B'Omer before. Dancing into the night to the tunes of a live Chasidic folk band, some of the guests spontaneously joined the jam session. "When they came, they came in separate groups, no one knowing each other," said Rabbi Klar, "but as the evening and band played on, you could feel that there was real unity between everyone who was there."

At the Lag B'Omer parade in Brooklyn in 1990, the Rebbe spoke of the importance of demonstrating Jewish pride publicly, such as in the form of a parade. In Israel, over 250,000 children marched in colorful parades organized by the Chabad Youth Organization, complete with posters, banners and floats, as well as hats and souvenir journals for the children.

At McCormick Railroad Park, an open air museum of old railroad cars in Phoenix, Arizona, over 125 people gathered for the Lag B'Omer barbecue. A retired man from the community donated his services as chef in a cooking pit which Rabbi Zalman Levertov, the Lubavitch emissary to Arizona, had koshered.

In Boulder, Colorado, the barbecue took place against a Rocky Mountain backdrop. College students, authors, and musicians came for the event organized by Rabbi and Mrs. Pesach Scheiner, the Lubavitch emissaries in Boulder.

At Rabbi Avraham Litvin's barbecue in Louisville, Kentucky, the event doubled as an open house for the new Jewish day school the Litvins are opening.

These events and thousands like them around the world testify, in Rabbi Kaplan's words, that "thanks to the Rebbe's efforts, a new Jewish spirit has emerged, which has recaptured its purpose and direction. The efforts started 50 years ago ensured that today Judaism would not just survive, but would grow and thrive."