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Winter Garden whiffs on Chanukah festivities

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Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Monday, December 5, 2022


Norine Dworkin

Chabad of South Orlando will host a Menorah Lighting near Winter Garden's Chanukah display at the downtown post office on Dec. 19 at 6 p.m. While Light Up Winter Garden was widely marketed by the city, despite its religious content, the Chanukah celebration was omitted from promotional materials because city officials said it is a religious event.

Winter Garden's latest e-newsletter landed in residents’ inboxes Dec. 1, packed with information about downtown yuletide festivities. It listed Light Up Winter Garden, which kicked off the city’s “38 days of ’Tis the Season,” the fire department’s neighborhood Santa Runs, two Christmas parades, horse-drawn carriage rides, musical performances on the Plaza and a citywide home holiday lighting contest.

But, missing from both the e-newsletter and the city’s main “Tis the Season” event flyer — emailed to residents and pasted on placards along Plant Street — is the only Jewish event on the calendar: the Menorah Lighting with Rabbi Yosef Konikov, director of the Jewish education and outreach organization Chabad of South Orlando.

The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, so the holidays shift year to year. This year, the first day of Chanukah is Dec. 19. The Menorah Lighting will take place at 6 p.m. that evening at the downtown post office on Plant Street and will include Chanukah songs and potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish. The city had no input into the programming, Laura Coar, director of parks and recreation, wrote in an email to VoxPopuli.

The city appears to have a blind spot for the Jewish community. A budget hearing was scheduled for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, in 2021, and again in October. Now, the Chanukah festivities have been left off the main promotional materials for downtown holiday events, though the Menorah Lighting is listed on the city’s website.

“I would imagine it wasn’t intentional,” said City Commissioner Lisa Bennett, who represents District 1, which includes Historic Downtown Winter Garden. She said she would “look into it to make sure” it was  accidental. She said last year’s Menorah Lighting was “amazing,” and she planned to attend again this year.

Informed about the omission, City Commissioner Colin Sharman said, “I did not know about that, but we can make sure we correct that and don’t let it happen again.”

Sharman represents District 4 where Chabad of South Orlando opened its Hebrew school four years ago at Stoneybrook West Country Club.

“Everyone in Winter Garden needs to feel like they’re welcome no matter what background you come from, religion or no religion,” Sharman said. He added that he wanted to invite a rabbi to give the invocation at a city commission meeting.

Both Bennett and Sharman spoke to VoxPopuli during the city’s annual Light Up Winter Garden event Friday evening. Sponsored by Duke Energy, the event included two sledding hills and a farmer’s market as well as a program of Bible readings, religious music and prayer, produced by the West Orange Ministerial Association on the City Hall steps ahead of the Christmas tree lighting. 

City Manager Jon Williams said the Chanukah celebration was not included in the e-newsletter or seasonal flyer because it is a “religious event,” but declined further comment. “I’m not doing an interview about that  tonight,” he told VoxPopuli at Light Up Winter Garden. He referred all further inquiries about the Chanukah event to Chabad South Orlando.

“They don’t understand inclusion of Jewish people. I think that stems from there not being that many Jews in the small towns around Orlando, like Winter Garden,” said Chani Konikov, principal of Chabad’s Orlando Jewish Day School and married to Rabbi Konikov. “There wasn’t a Jewish voice, so no one had to do anything.”

Chanukah celebrates the victory of a small band of Jewish resistance fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, over the army of the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes. This was 168 BCE, when Greece dominated the world. The king had converted the sacred Jewish Temple in Jerusalem into a temple to Zeus, outlawed the practice of Judaism, and gave Jews an ultimatum: adopt Greek life and accept the Greek gods, or die. Resistance fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, fought back, restored the temple and re-ignited Jewish life.

According to, “… Hanukkah evokes stirring images of Jewish valor against overwhelming odds. Other themes of the holiday include … loss of Jewish identity, and the fight for Jewish political autonomy and self-determination.”

The legend of Chanukah — that the Jewish fighters, rededicating the Jerusalem Temple, found a jar containing enough oil to keep the ceremonial flame lit for a single day, but which miraculously burned for eight — was added centuries later, according to

Chabad of South Orlando has been raising awareness about Jewish culture in Winter Garden for about four years, with Chanukah programming and the occasional Friday evening Shabbat worship service, according to Chani Konikov. The city's seasonal event flyers for 2018, 2019 and 2021, obtained through a public records request, do not list any of Chabad's annual Chanukah events.  (There were no flyers in 2020 because of the pandemic.) 

“It's good that they're getting more inclusive and more diverse. They just need to follow through and include the event with the listings of all the other events,” Cantor Kim Singer, leader of Temple Shir Shalom of Oviedo, said in a phone interview. “If it's a holiday event, it's a holiday event, then you should fully treat it like that.”

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