Chabad menorah near Brandenburg Gate in 2016
Chabad menorah near Brandenburg Gate in 2016Alex Timanoff /

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One night in early November, Vienna exploded with the sharp cracks of automatic gunfire. An Islamist terrorist had struck the Austrian capital. By the time police neutralized him, he had murdered four and injured 23, leaving the cobblestone streets of old Vienna stained with blood.

The gunman had marked all Austrians as potential victims, killing indiscriminately, yet his rampage began outside the city’s Stadttempel, the only Viennese synagogue to survive Kristallnacht and Nazi rule. Even though the synagogue and adjacent offices were shuttered at the time, the attack harkened back grimly to the 1981 Vienna synagogue shooting, when terrorists killed two and injured 30 on the same spot.

“It was terrifying,” says Eliyahu Medvinskyy, a 34-year-old husband and father in the Vienna Jewish community. “It broke 40 years of peace here.”

It didn’t help that the surprise attack came the night before Austria was set to enter a second coronavirus lockdown, further clouding an already dark year. All of this, says Rabbi Mottel Segal, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch House in Vienna’s Second District, underscores the vital importance of the impending holiday of Hanukkah, which begins this year on Thursday evening, Dec. 10, and runs through Friday, Dec. 18.

“It’s not just about making sure we can celebrate Hanukkah as usual,” explains Segal. “People here are shocked, afraid. We saw darkness. Now we need to light up Vienna with the light of the Hanukkah menorah as never before for the Jews of Austria and for all of its people.”

The heightened sense of urgency to share the message, spirit and hope of Hanukkah like never before is not unique to Vienna. In a year that has seen quarantines, illness and death, closures and business collapses, all amid an overwhelming sense of sheer confusion and even despair, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement worldwide is preparing the largest Hanukkah awareness campaign in history.

This year’s efforts will see Chabad erect some 15,000 large public menorahs around the world with an additional 6,500 menorah-topped cars hitting the streets. Chabad emissaries are distributing 64 million Hanukkah candles and 700,000 menorah kits to anyone in need; and handing out some 2.5 million holiday guides in 17 languages. With so many people isolating at home, this year Chabad will also be shipping or delivering an estimated 350,000 Hanukkah-at-home kits to young people, families and the elderly. At the same time, the Ambassadors of Light program enlists people of all ages around the world to share Hanukkah with those around them, providing them with everything they need to assist friends, family and co-workers to celebrate the Festival of Lights. All told, the campaign is expected to reach 8 million Jews in more than 100 countries.

With at-home celebrations at least temporarily replacing larger gatherings and increased demand for online assistance, the Judaism website is also expecting an estimated 10 million unique visitors to come to Among the new offerings is 12 Tips for an Amazing Hanukkah at Home, which smoothly guides anyone, anywhere, through all of the Hanukkah essentials.

The effort stems directly from the RebbeRabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—who revitalized the modern observance of Hanukkah when he launched his Hanukkah awareness campaign in 1973.

“There is a preeminence in the [mitzvot] connected with lighting candles … in that the effect of the action, the appearance of light, is immediately visible … ,” the Rebbeexplained in his public letter for Hanukkah 1973. “[T]he mitzvah of kindling the Hanukkah light is unique in that it is required to be displayed to the outside … . Thus every by-passer, including non-Jews, immediately notices the effect of the light, which illuminates the outside and the environment.”

The Rebbe called not only for every Jewish home to be filled with the light of the menorah, but that its flames illuminate the wider world as well. For Hanukkah in 1974, a Chabad emissary erected the very first public menorah outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, followed the next year by a 25-foot mahogany menorah raised in Union Square, San Francisco. By the end of the decade, Chabad emissaries were placing public menorahs on Fifth Avenue in New York City, outside the White House in Washington, D.C., and on the star-studded streets of Los Angeles, adding more cities every year. At the same time, Chabad activists hit the streets to distribute tin menorah and candle kits, giving them out as fast as they could manufacture them. These efforts, along with innovative programs, from Hanukkah on Ice to olive-oil press workshops, permanently transformed the breadth and depth of Hanukkah observance in the United States and around the world.

Lighting a Candle in Terror-Stricken Vienna

Chabad of Austria was founded by Rabbi Jacob and Edla Biderman in 1980, and in the years since has grown to encompass 30 emissary couples serving nine centers—one in Salzburg—and a vast educational network, including seven preschools, a Jewish day school and the Lauder Business School. Even as it remains unknown how long Austria’s coronavirus lockdown will last, the emissaries have barreled ahead with their Hanukkah preparations, planning COVID-appropriate celebrations for as many people as they can reach.

Chabad of Vienna’s large public menorah in the city center is going up again. They are planning a 50-menorah-topped-car Hanukkah parade through city streets and renting a massive drive-in movie theater for a Hanukkah program and concert for thousands. They are also readying packages that include a menorah, candles, the blessings, a dreidel and some Hanukkah treats to reach every Jew in Vienna without a menorah. More importantly, Jewish community members are enlisting via Chabad Vienna’s website to take menorah and candle kits and distribute them to friends, coworkers and neighbors so that the Hanukkah effort can reach the widest circle possible.

“It’s something I try to do every year—reach out to friends, and bring them a menorah and candles if they don’t have them,” says Medvinskyy, who moved to Vienna from Ukraine 10 years ago to study at Chabad’s Lauder Business School. But this year feels somehow different—something he felt this past Rosh Hashanah as well, when rabbis and volunteers spread throughout the city to blow the shofar for everyone in isolation. “It was this depressing time, and suddenly you heard the shofar on the streets of Vienna. Hanukkah will be even more than that,” he says.

In fact, Chabad’s public menorah is erected in Stephansplatz, the popular pedestrian plaza at the geographic center of Vienna, mere steps away from this month’s terror attack. There, its flames will illuminate the surrounding darkness, signaling to one and all G‑d’s miraculous deliverance of a militarily weak but spiritually strong Jewish people 2,160 years ago, and the ultimate triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.

“We cannot fight darkness with sticks,” says Medvinskyy. “We need to light a candle.”

Reprinted with permission from