Large menorah outside the Chabad Jewish Center on Thursday November 9, 2023 | Todd Bannor

Rabbi Yitzchok Bergstein set up a nine-foot-high menorah outside his Chabad Center on South Boulevard not only because Hanukkah is right around the corner — Dec. 7 — but also because he feels that the world right now needs more light.

The menorah is part of an effort he is calling Be a Pillar of Light. Its goal is to place at least 14 menorahs around Oak Park, Forest Park and River Forest. 

“It was a flash of inspiration,” he said. “I was constantly thinking during the past month about what’s going on in Israel. The battle we are facing today is not just a physical battle against terrorists; it’s a battle of light over darkness, of goodness over evil. If you go into a dark room and light a candle it brightens up the room. It changes the dynamic of the room. The way to get rid of evil is to bring more light into the world, bring more kindness.”

Rabbi Bergstein said that one way to bring light into darkness is to do mitzvahs, small deeds of kindness. 

“Any act of kindness,” he said, “has a ripple effect on the world. In our prayers on Hanukkah, we remember how a small group of Jews called the Maccabees were fighting a large army, and it was a spiritual fight as well as a physical fight.”

“In our campaign,” he said, “we are setting up menorahs to encourage people to do acts of kindness, to do as many mitzvahs as they can.”

Every Hanukkah, Jews remember the miracle of one day’s worth of oil keeping the lamp in the temple in Jerusalem burning for eight days when the Maccabees retook the temple from their enemies who had been occupying their holy place.

The Chabad rabbi noted that one effect of the horrors of Oct. 7 has been to make many Jews strengthen their connection to their religion. In other words, the darkness caused by the war has motivated many to seek light and carry it into the darkness, even if it is saying a prayer or two or wearing a prayer shawl.

He referenced Victor Frankly, a Holocaust survivor who, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, argued that a secret to survival is to find purpose in what you are going through. It’s not the darkness that defeats people, but their inability to find some kind of meaning or purpose for what they’ve gone through.

Rabbi Bergstein explained that if you change the vowels in the Hebrew word for why you get the word for what for. 

“We are permitted and even encouraged to ask ‘why,’” he said, “but we’ll never get a satisfactory answer. It’s how we respond to the darkness that gives life meaning.”

Last year, Mayor Rory Hoskins lit a menorah in Forest Park’s Constitution Court and another menorah stood outside the River Forest Public Library.

When asked for his thoughts on how the State of Israel is responding to Hamas, he made a distinction between the State of Israel and the Holy Land on which it is situated.

“It’s all about our relationship to the land God gave us.”

When asked if the increased darkness frightened him, replied, “No, I’m not afraid, but I am concerned. We have an armed guard posted here during Shabbat services and the Oak Park police check in on us regularly, but we can’t let the terrorists infuse fear in us. That’s what they want.”