Philly’s iconic boathouse row lights up for Hanukkah

If you’ve driven along the Schuylkill Expressway after dark recently, you may have noticed a new set of lights on Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row.

All week, the city has been celebrating Hanukkah by turning the iconic buildings into one of the largest representations of the menorah in the nation, according to the mayor’s office.

On Thursday night, Lauren Levy, cantor at Temple Beth David in Gladwyne, sang out the traditional Hanukkah blessings as city officials gathered to watch the sixth boathouse light up at exactly 5:57 p.m. to mark the sixth night of the festival. Across the river behind her, five boathouses blazed with blue lights and while one shone in white to represent the “shamash,” the candle used to light the rest of the menorah.

“The first blessing praises God, the ruler of the universe and makes us holy and commands us to light the Hanukkah [lights],” Levy said. “The second blessing reminds us of the miracles that God has made for our ancestors in that time.”

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The story of Hanukkah begins with the destruction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem where an eternal flame was lit.

“In the destruction of the temple, there was only enough oil to keep the lamp lit one day,” explained Germantown resident Jill Saull. “But, miraculously, it stayed on for eight days, and so that’s why each night of Hanukkah, you light one candle to represent the miracle of the lights.”

Saull was among a small crowd gathered along the river to watch the lights. Although she is uncomfortable with some of the hype Hanukkah gets — it’s a minor festival in the Jewish calendar and is often commercialized along with Christmas as the two holidays fall near each other — Saull said she came to see the Boathouse Row menorah because her son was an avid rower while he was a student at Central High School. That was in the days before there was a rowing team for the city’s public schools

“We love coming down here and we love being part of the culture that’s down here,” said Saull.  

Philadelphia City Rowing’s founder Tony Schneider is one of several Jews who are part of the history of rowing in the city, said Alan Robinson, chair of the Schuylkill Navy River Stewards Committee. That history also includes Allen Rosenberg, a coach of the Vesper Boat Club team that won a gold metal at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

“Our story has long been part of the Philadelphia rowing story,” said Robinson. 

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