MOSCOW (JTA) — A Jewish holiday, the lure of sex and the possibility of helping break a Guinness world record drew hundreds of young people to a Moscow nightclub for an unusual Chanukah celebration.
Sunday’s event was the brainchild of the new Russian Hillel director, Alexander Shlimak, who was appointed in September and says he is trying to come up with new ways to attract young people to the Jewish community.
Some 500 young people came to the party at Zona in a bid to break the Guinness world record for most Chanukah candles lit simultaneously.
“There are about 15,000 Jewish students in Moscow,” Shlimak said. “Only 10 percent of them take part in the events organized by the Jewish community. I feel my task in this post is to raise this figure up to at least 40 percent. To achieve this, we have to show the modern face of Jewish life to young people and provide them with events that look neither dull nor frightening. I hope this party is a good example of what can be done.”
Held in a large and fashionable nightclub covered with posters declaring “Strip Dancers Wanted,” the celebration did manage to attract some who don’t usually attend Jewish events.
Elena, a graduate student at Moscow State University, told JTA she heard about the party through promotional e-mails.
“I got several e-mails, and even a message on my mobile that said I could take part in setting a Guinness world record,” said Elena, who preferred not to give her last name. “They must have had my contact details because I took part in a Taglit program several years ago. I thought it could be fun, so I came.”
Taglit is the Hebrew name for Birthright Israel, the program that brings Jewish 18- to 26-year-olds to Israel on free 10-day trips.
Evgeny Lensky, 26, the owner of a small trading firm, said he also received a promotional e-mail and decided to attend because he had nothing better to do that night. A graduate of a Jewish high school, Lensky said that although he knows a lot about Jewish tradition, he considers himself assimilated and is not that interested in Jewish community.
Lensky said, however, that parties like these have the power to draw young people like him to Jewish venues.
“Probably I was just unlucky in my first experiences, but somehow my attitude in general to Jewish society isn’t good,” he said. “I live a very assimilated life and I don’t think anything could really get me back into the community. But there are thousands of young Jewish men who just know nothing about Hillel and all these events. Sometimes they don’t even know they are Jews.
“I think Jewish organizations should work with them,” he said.
Lensky brought his non-Jewish girlfriend, Katya, to the party. She said she knew nothing about Chanukah before, but found the event “very colorful.”
The candlelighting ceremony itself took only a few minutes. After Shlimak recited the prayers over the candles, those who registered to take part in the record attempt each lit four candles, one after another — three for the third night of Chanukah, plus the shamash, or middle candle. In total, 1,440 Chanukah candles were lit in one place nearly simultaneously. Shlimak said he believed it was a new world record; the final result should be announced in about a month.
Before the dancing segment of the party started, organizers talked to the crowd about the Chanukah tradition of giving money, or gelt, to children, and suggested everyone donate a small sum to help the children who were orphaned by the nightclub fire in the Urals city of Perm earlier this month. More than 140 people were killed in the blaze.
Many Chanukah celebrations in Russia this year were affected by the tragedy, which was sparked by fireworks at the Lame Horse nightclub.
“When we learned about the Perm fire, we thought it probably would seem wrong to light candles and set off fireworks for Chanukah,” Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, told JTA after the public ceremony of lighting the menorah on display in Moscow’s Manezhnya Square. “But then we decided that bringing a bit more light to the world is always good. So we held this ceremony, as usual, in an effort to show that we remember miracles and still hope for better.”
In St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, Chanukah celebrations were held without the expected fireworks. In Perm itself, celebrations commenced with Kaddish for those killed in the nightclub fire.