DURHAM - Mayor Bill Bell teetered for just a moment, braced himself and took one more step up the ladder.
It's not easy to light a menorah that stands more than 8 feet tall and is made of balloons.
This menorah -- 600 small, round blue and white balloons affixed to an aluminum frame -- was the main visual attraction of a Sunday afternoon Hanukkah party at the Lerner Jewish Community Day School.
Bell, the guest of honor, lit a candle atop the menorah and said a few words. But the children in attendance weren't wowed by prominent local politician; not when there were latkes and doughnuts to eat, stories to listen to and that giant menorah to help build.
"Each year we try to have an innovative way to make the holidays something the kids can connect to," said Zalmen Bluming, the rabbi at Chabad of UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, the local unit of a national Jewish outreach organization. Chabad held Sunday's party as a way to connect with local Jewish families.
The menorah "makes it so real for children," said Bluming's wife, Yehudis. It makes it so animated. It makes religion fun."
For many of the youngsters, the fun came in fishing small clusters of the balloons out of a bag and affixing them to the menorah frame, thus playing a part in its creation.
The event was symbolic. Hanukkah doesn't begin until Sunday.
In opening the event, the rabbi referenced President-elect Barack Obama, calling him an inspiration and symbol of hope to all minority groups. He borrowed from one of Obama's oft-used slogans to describe the importance of Hanukkah and of lighting the menorah -- the symbolic creation of light.
"If we place our faith in God," he said, "Yes, we can overcome our obstacles."
Shana Starobin struggled at first to find a Jewish community of her own three years ago when she moved to Durham from Washington, D.C. But the Duke graduate student joined the local Chabad group and was taken by its inviting, low-pressure environment. Looking at the room full of playing children Sunday, she said the oversize balloon menorah perfectly symbolized Chabad's philosophy.
"Chabad is known for having pride in Jewish life," she said. "We don't tuck our menorahs away. The giant menorah, while funny, is a reminder that we have a symbol during times of darkness."
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