Naomi Stricker // North Orlando, Florida
Reading the title of this article, you might be coming in looking for a piece about the mysticism behind the story of Chanukah. If this is the case, I apologize for the misdirect: the title instead refers to Central Florida’s resident NBA team, the Orlando Magic.
Since 2013, the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, has hosted a basketball game each year with the unique mission of celebrating the Jews of Central Florida. While it was originally known as “Jewish Heritage Night,” the evening recently transitioned into a Chanukah-specific celebration in 2019.
To gain more insight into this elaborately planned event, I reached out to the director of the night, Rabbi Dovid Dubov of Orlando, FL. When asked about the history of the game, he provided a detailed background:
“It was August 2019 when I made my first call to the Magic. I brought up my idea, they immediately rejected the thought, saying “we don’t allow any form of religious activity at the game.” I insisted on setting up a meeting with the head producer of Magic entertainment. When I showed up to the meeting I began playing one video after the next of Menorah Lightings around the globe. From the White House to mega sports venues. They learned that this had a very different message than they had thought. When they understood the message, they concluded that not only will we have the menorah lighting on the court, we’ll need to have a video presentation as well so that everyone else can learn the values and positive message the menorah teaches us.”
While this event has been a favorite for Central Florida Jews for quite some time, CTeen has only recently found their place in the stands. CTeener Judith Chali of Casselberry, FL attended last year. She recalled, “That night was pretty loud and hyped! There were about 30+ teens there. After leaving that night, I felt great! It was so much fun“.
After hearing rave reviews from teens such as Chali, I knew I had to experience this incredibly unique Chanukah night for myself.
This year, I had the pleasure of attending alongside teens of each the Chabad of North, South, and Greater Orlando. Our night started off with us meeting inside of an exclusive suite within the Amway Center. Next, our Rabbi took the teen leaders, along with kids from the Moldau Hebrew School, down to the court for a chance to high-five the players. While waiting, a local elementary school choir and dance team performed. Some CTeeners were even invited to play a game of layups. The crowd, while still finding their seats, seemed excited for the festivities the night would bring.
Once back in the suite, we were provided a delicious spread of kosher hot dogs, brisket, and salads. By the time our plates were full and our seats were found, cantor Aryeh Hurwitz took the stadium by storm while singing the National Anthem. Hearing a Jewish voice echo through the stadium ignited a clear sense of pride in all the Jewish attendees.
With a clear view of the court, the game against the Toronto Raptors began. While many teens were invested in the game, others sought silence in the hallways to meet fellow CTeeners.
During the intricately planned halftime show, a Menorah was lit on the court by members of the Chabad Community. Rabbi Dubov shared with me that planning these short 3.5 minutes is one of his favorite parts of getting the night in order. He emphasized, “It's crucial we utilize every second in the best way possible.” With the symbolic Menorah lighting, along with a video presentation and Dreidel Breakdancers, it became clear that this goal came to fruition. Not only were the Jews in the crowd represented, but the casual fans left with a new appreciation of Chanukah and its joyful traditions.
Throughout the night, members of CTeen could be found approaching new friends throughout the arena while attempting to win a treasure hunt. Some things that they were asked to find included someone wearing cowboy boots, someone with red and curly hair, and a group who plans to attend the INTLShabbaton! This was a great way for CTeeners to introduce themselves to each other.
After a close game with Magic taking home the win, the CTeen community was once again invited down to the court for a round of post-game layups.
As we all went our separate ways, it was clear everyone had enjoyed themselves. Whether their highlight was watching their hometown team win, watching the Dreidel Breakdancers, or having a quiet conversation in a hallway, everyone left with memories to smile upon for years to come.
I end this article with some final thoughts from Rabbi Dubov: “I hope that everyone understands the importance of Jewish pride. It’s definitely easier to sit back and celebrate Judaism privately in our homes. We can ask, "why shove it in people's faces?" But if we would all shy away from the uncomfortable public confrontation, events like these would never happen. Ultimately this event will strengthen the Jewish confidence within ourselves, our communities and especially within the younger generation.”