As the sun set on Sunday evening, hundreds gathered at Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights.
People dressed as dreidels spun and danced while people ate latkes to commemorate the first night of Hanukkah with the lighting of a giant menorah at Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street. It took a crane to reach and light the first candle of the oversized menorah, parked next to the SlotZilla entrance.
The public event provided a great way to reconnect with friends and family, said 39-year-old Esther Mowery, who recently returned to Las Vegas after four years living on the East Coast. She had attended the public lighting for several years prior to her move, and she brought along three of her five children on Sunday.
Celebrating the first day of Hanukkah with the “craziness” of Fremont Street is a nice perk, she said.
“It’s the Festival of Lights, right? So I guess what better way to celebrate than at a place where you’re absolutely surrounded by tons of lights?” Mowery said.
Rabbi Shea Harlig, regional director of Chabad of Southern Nevada and one of the event organizers, said the celebration is public because the Jewish victory over the Syrians benefited not only the Jewish people but other nations as well.
This year, just over a month after a gunman killed 11 people inside a Pennsylvania synagogue, it was particularly important to celebrate one’s Jewish faith in a public fashion, Harlig said.
“We’re not going to let evil stop us,” he said.
Rivky Bronchtain and her husband, Tzvi, direct Chabad UNLV, a student group. But on Sunday, Bronchtain was there with six children for the menorah lighting. It’s important to take pride in one’s Jewish heritage, particularly when hatred remains, she said, adding that Hanukkah celebrates light, and light combats hatred.
“I think it’s so important to bring more light into the world,” Bronchtain said. “And for us, showing up shows that we’re expressing our light and sharing that light with others.”
Steve Lane, 72, of Las Vegas attended the ceremony wearing a Dallas Cowboys jacket and a hat with Hebrew text. Lane, who has attended the Fremont Street menorah lighting for more than a decade, said the display gives him and others the chance to publicly and proudly declare their Jewish faith.
Celebrating Hanukkah at the lighting sends a positive message to “all mankind,” Lane said, adding that it’s particularly needed at a time in American society when there’s “way too much hate.”
“We’d like to give light to the whole world — not to just Jewish people, but to make the whole world better,” Lane said.
That afternoon, children ran through Tivoli Village while clutching cotton candy, laughing and eating latkes during the Community Kollel of Greater Las Vegas’ family Hanukkah festival.
It was the first time the Jewish community center hosted a Hanukkah event at the the western Las Vegas Valley shopping area, said Rabbi Nachum Meth, Community Kollel’s director of operations.
Meth said he was happy to see more than 800 people come out to celebrate the first day of Hanukkah. He said people who don’t attend Jewish worship services or other events still tend to celebrate the holiday together.
“Jews come out of the woodwork for Hanukkah,” Meth said. “It’s a time when folks who really aren’t so connected come out.”
Jewish communities in other countries typically don’t put as much emphasis on Hanukkah, Meth said. But in the past few decades, American Jews have started having more public celebrations.
“One hundred years ago this wasn’t happening,” said Meth, gesturing to the crowd of families.