Good Life

Q&A | Rabbi Nosson Meretsky

One Hanukkah celebration is a big deal to Rabbi Nosson Meretsky — as in 9 feet tall.

That’s the size of the menorah Meretsky, 39, and his wife, Sarah Meretsky, will set up at 5 p.m. Dec. 9 in front of the State College Municipal Building. As co-directors of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student and Community Center, serving Penn State and State College, the Meretskys stage their Hanukkah display as part of the international Chabad house network’s mission of conducting outreach programs for Jewish communities and promoting Jewish culture.

Chabad houses, established by the Chabad movement started 250 years ago, are centers for teaching about Judaism and Jewish life in casual and informal environments. Chabad student centers are near 165 college campuses.

The Meretskys, also busy raising seven children, serve weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners and organize birthright trips to Israel, among other activities throughout the year. But each December, a giant menorah takes priority.

How did you get started with the menorah?

We’ve done that since our first time (in State College). It was our first Hanukkah here. We’ve been here 11 years. This will be our 12th annual menorah lighting.

Our first winter here in State College, the borough building wasn’t built yet. So our first year, actually, we had it in the yard of Beta Sigma Beta fraternity at the corner of Fairmount and Locust. We had our 9-foot menorah there. ... I lit the menorah the first night, the president of the fraternity lit it the second night and we had it there all the time. During Hanukkah, it did get pushed over by somebody, but we put it back up. ... The public menorah lighting is something that Chabad-Lubavitch (movement, a branch of Hasidism), worldwide, has been doing for years. For us, it was, of course, Hanukkah time, you have to do a public menorah lighting. That’s one of the main things modern (Judaism) emphasizes for Hanukkah, is publicizing the miracle. The whole concept of Hanukkah is that the candles should be on the outside. Even in Jewish law, ideally, the menorah is lit outside the doorway of the house, even the gate of the courtyard. Here, it’s not so much, but in Israel, probably more than half the people do it. ... Most (Jewish) people in America are from Europe, and so in Europe, they wouldn’t do that because of the weather, because of anti-Semitism. So it was more on the inside.

But in Israel today, they still do it on the outside. Even in America, even though the classic lighting doesn’t take place in the gates or the doorway to the outside, even lighting it in a window, which many people do these days, is also publicizing the miracle to the outside.

Where did you get your menorah?

We’re now on our second one. Our first one we got from a place in New Jersey. The second one we got from, it’s called ... You can order them: 6-foot ones, 9-foot ones, 12-foot ones. The giant menorah in front of the White House and the one in Manhattan, I think, are the maximum size, which I think is 20 feet, 30 feet. There’s a certain maximum height that even a public menorah like that is allowed to be. ... The one in D.C., they come out there with a cherry-picker crane to light the menorah there. The same thing with the one in Manhattan, to get up to such a high menorah. Here we use a ladder or a chair for a 9-foot one. For us, it was an automatic thing, to have such a menorah at such an event, to publicize the miracle, publicize the lights and the whole concept, the message of Hanukkah: bringing light to the darkness.

It’s also a very nice community event. In the middle of winter, people come out to see such a thing: a giant menorah. People can identify with it too, especially Jewish people. You see this in the middle of central Pennsylvania and you say, ‘Wow, look at this, this is my holiday,’ because you see so much of other holiday decorations around. ... You can come out and celebrate with dreidels (small tops), chocolate Hanukkah coins; eat latkes and jelly doughnuts.

What does that public display mean to you as a rabbi?

For me it’s, I think, one of the reasons we’re here, to have these kind of public things, to be visual, to be out there. Hanukkah is one of the best ways to achieve that general purpose.

Have you seen Hanukkah establish more of presence in relation to Christmas?

I think there’s a little bit more awareness in general of Hanukkah in the country compared to 50 years ago. .... The fact you see in the press, in the papers, the president of the United States at a Hanukkah party at the White House, lighting a menorah there, it’s awareness. People say, ‘Oh fine, the president of the United States is going to a Hannukah party. Someone is lighting the menorah there.’ Or you see a picture of several rabbis presenting the president with a silver menorah. Or different governors or dignitaries. You have public menorah lightings like the one in California, the governor coming to the menorah lighting, dancing around with Chabad rabbis there. Of course, the giant menorah in Manhattan, the giant menorah in D.C. These things represent awareness. ... The fact is, there are a lot less Jews in America, in the makeup of the population of the country. I don’t know if there should be a necessity of having to have everything be equal. You go to Israel, it’s mostly Jewish. You don’t see many trees for sale.

How did you come to be a rabbi?

Neither Sarah nor I were brought up observant. I grew up in Oregon; she grew up in Omaha, Neb. If she was affiliated with anything, it was more a reformed congregation there in Omaha. I grew up not really affiliated with anything. Until the age of 11, I grew up on a retreat and conference center out in the forest. We had a 165-acre retreat about 40 miles west of Portland. We were the caretakers of the property. My dad was the manager of the thing; my mom was the main chef for retreats and conferences on the weekends.

Basically, unlike most of the Jewish students at Penn State, I knew a lot less about being Jewish when I was 8 years old than they did when they were 8 years old. Maybe I’ve learned a little bit since then. Basically when I was 8 years old, I knew about Hanukkah and Passover, and that was it. I had never heard of Shabbat (Sabbath). I had never heard of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, keeping kosher. (The retreat) was just out there in the middle of nowhere. My mom was brought up a little bit going to Hebrew school in Boston.

When I was 11, we moved into Portland and I started finding out more about the concept of Shabbat, Friday night meals, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, starting to get more involved, get more interested. It was a gradual thing.

When I went away to college in Seattle, I was still getting more involved. I was lighting my own Shabbat candles. A friend of my mom had given me candlesticks. There wasn’t anybody else; I was kind of on my own, making Shabbat meals, singing some songs, doing what I knew. ... I started going to the Chabad house there. I was going to Hillel also.

I ended up going to a (Jewish studies) program in the Catskills. ... It was kind of five-week introductory program: field trips, lectures, workshops, classes, all kinds of things. Hands on, five weeks, very basic for people who didn’t know much (about Judaism) ... I mean I never even went to Hebrew school. I had a tutor for my Bar Mitzvah. So I went to that, and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to continue Torah learning, so I ended up going to Brooklyn (N.Y.) and a school. It was a place called Hadar Hatorah. It was the first place in the world, in recent times, that was started for people who did not grow up observant and learning Torah when they were younger. It’s a baal teshuva yeshiva (for Jews turning to Orthodox Judaism). ... So I went there for two and a half years. I studied in Israel for half a year, and then came back to New York to continue my rabbinical studies. It was kind of like: After I had been learning Torah for a number of years, I just wanted to keep having an opportunity to be in that environment, to be in with the Torah and Jewish things, since I did enjoy it so much. If I can, if I have the opportunity, why not? If it doesn’t work out, fine, I have a back-up plan. I’ll find other jobs.

So I did go toward ordination. Then I met Sarah. We got married, and I continued learning for a year, and it worked out.