Hundreds attended the seventh-night lighting of a replacement menorah at Lake Merritt on Dec. 13, 2023, after the previous one was destroyed. (Photo/Courtesy)
Hundreds attended the seventh-night lighting of a replacement menorah at Lake Merritt on Dec. 13, 2023, after the previous one was destroyed. (Photo/Courtesy)

Hundreds attend Oakland menorah lighting after antisemitic vandalism

Updated at 2:20 p.m. Dec. 15

The night after vandals destroyed an 11-foot Chabad menorah on the shore of Oakland’s Lake Merritt, throwing parts of it into the water, several hundred people gathered for a candlelighting ceremony in a show of unity.

Chabad of Oakland hastily erected another large menorah in its place for a 7 p.m. lighting on Wednesday, temporarily moving it from nearby Piedmont. Before the overnight vandalism, no ceremony had been planned in Oakland for the seventh night of Hanukkah.

Organizers handed out sufganiyot, the jelly doughnuts traditionally eaten during the holiday, and a number of families brought children to celebrate.

Speakers at the event decried antisemitism and other forms of hate. Police have begun a hate crime investigation into the vandalism, which also included threatening, curse-laden graffiti and “Free Palestine” spray-painted in Arabic where the original menorah had stood.

Rabbi Dovid Labkowski of Chabad of Oakland spoke at the event and asked for “all peace-loving people to stand with us against hate.”

Other Oakland spiritual leaders who addressed the crowd included Rabbi Mark Bloom of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham, Rabbi Gershon Albert of Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation and Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Reform Temple Sinai.

Among the elected officials who spoke were Rob Bonta, the state’s attorney general; his wife, Mia Bonta, a state Assemblymember who represents Oakland and other East Bay cities; and Oakland councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who is Jewish.

Oakland councilmember Dan Kalb, who is also Jewish, and fellow councilmember Kevin Jenkins attended as well. Mayor Sheng Thao was not on hand but released a statement earlier in the day, condemning the “desecration” and describing it as an attack on Oakland’s Jewish community, “our entire city and our shared values.” Both Kalb and Thao had spoken at the previous menorah lighting ceremony at Lake Merritt on Sunday.

Several Berkeley rabbis were in attendance, as were Chabad families from throughout the Bay Area.

Bloom spoke of the community coming together and being “united to dispel the darkness we’ve seen here.” Albert complimented his Chabad colleagues for making such a public display of Judaism with their menorah lightings.

“I have run around Lake Merritt for the last 10 years with a kippah and have never felt afraid until the last few months,” Albert said.

Noting that Jews have often been historically afraid to light menorahs publicly, he said, “Your bravery is so deeply inspiring.”

Mates-Muchin said she appreciated being asked to speak, acknowledging the politics that normally would have preempted the Orthodox group from inviting a Reform female rabbi.

“I want to express my gratitude for the diversity that’s sharing the mic,” she said.

Mates-Muchin said the Jewish community is like the city of Oakland as a whole: “No matter how many times we get knocked down, we get back up.”

Labkowski said the day after the event that “unity” drove his decision to invite such a wide swath of community leaders.

“We were looking for unity, and unity means that all the Jewish leaders in Oakland are united. That’s what we wanted,” he said.

The crowd was audibly less enthusiastic when Kaplan spoke. Kaplan did not support Kalb’s effort to add a condemnation of Hamas to a cease-fire resolution, approved unanimously by the Oakland City Council at a contentious meeting on Nov. 27.

“We live in a diverse city with people with all different opinions,” Labkowski said of the decision to include Kaplan. “When it comes to Judaism, we don’t take a stand and try to keep politics out. Part of the big tent is you get people who disagree to be part of it and have that dialogue instead of blocking them out.”

One man’s cry of “Free Palestine” at the event was quickly drowned out by people singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”

Two hours earlier, the San Francisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center met at the same spot to co-host a vigil with other groups that support a cease-fire in the war, including Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation based in Piedmont, and Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group based in Berkeley. On Wednesday, AROC posted a statement on X that decried the destruction of the menorah and denounced antisemitism, while advising against equating Zionism and Judaism. “We have warned repeatedly that the conflation of the state of Israel with Jewish people everywhere is both disingenuous and dangerous,” its X post stated.

AROC, an anti-Zionist group, blames Israel, not Hamas, for the Oct. 7 massacre. “The Israeli regime [is] entirely responsible for all unfolding violence we’ve witnessed across historic Palestine,” its website states.

The Chabad event was preceded by a parade of dozens of cars driving around Lake Merritt with menorahs affixed to their roofs.

Chabad of Oakland is raising money to buy a new menorah for next year. Labkowski has already ordered it, noting that it will be even taller: 13 feet, compared with the 11-foot-tall menorah that was destroyed. As of Thursday afternoon, Chabad had raised more than $16,000 toward a goal of $25,000.

After the Lake Merritt event, Chabad of Oakland disassembled the menorah. Labkowski planned to light it in Piedmont for the final night of Hanukkah on Thursday.

Anne Marx of Berkeley, who attended the lighting, commented that she had been at a Berkeley City Council meeting on Tuesday night to offer a pro-Israel voice amid calls for a cease-fire resolution. She connected the menorah vandalism to the hate-filled atmosphere at the November Oakland City Council meeting where the cease-fire resolution passed.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “the divisive city council resolution in Oakland opened the door for this.”

Update: Oakland councilmember Kevin Jenkins also attended the ceremony.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."