Friday November 26, 2004

Let there be LEGOs
Giant menorahs to brighten Bay Area

by Joe Eskenazi
staff writer

When Rabbi Yossi Marcus was a kid, he loved his LEGOs. Using the colorful little bricks, he even built a little mechanic’s garage — “with a pulley and everything.”

Marcus may need a real-life pulley for his latest LEGO creation: An 8-foot-tall, 9-foot-wide menorah, complete with candle holders and electric lights.

The menorah will be unveiled at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 7, at the Burlingame Caltrain station. As many as 300 revelers have shown up for past North Peninsula menorah lightings, and Marcus believes the novelty of a LEGO menorah will push that number higher this year.

“LEGO is kosher, as long as you don’t eat it,” quipped the 30-year-old rabbi, who has headed the San Mateo-based Chabad center for the past four years.

And while no one plans on eating the menorah, Marcus is cooking with the family recipe, so to speak. A similar mammoth menorah was devised by his cousin, Rabbi Avremi Bernstein of Chabad of Freehold, N.J.

Two years ago, Bernstein fell upon a massive LEGO structure as a natural choice after already constructing balloon menorahs and ice menorahs. He even phoned up the company to ask for advice on how to construct a big-enough chanukiah.

But when Bernstein disclosed the dimensions he desired, the LEGO people told him he was asking for the impossible.

Undeterred, Bernstein and his then-10-year-old son sat down and drew up blueprints for the menorah, which 70 kids working in teams subsequently assembled in just over an hour at a local mall.

“The top of the menorah resembles a little bit the way Maimonides said the original menorah in the temple did. So that was a little bit of a guide for us,” said Bernstein.

Bernstein is calm and rational about the fact that he and his young son simply sat down and designed a freestanding sculpture composed of 3,200 LEGO bricks, even after LEGO experts told him it could not be done.

He admits his background is not in engineering but “rabbinics. Common sense. Not architecture.”

A number of Chabad rabbis have asked for his blueprints. In fact, Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley will also be constructing a LEGO menorah.

Potash plans on starting construction of the chanukiah at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 12, on the corner of 24th and Noe streets. He hopes to be finished in time for a 5 p.m. lighting.

When he’s done with the menorah, he hopes to donate it to the children’s ward of a local hospital.

The Burlingame menorah will be assembled by Bob Mancini, founder of TechKnowHow, a computer and technology camp in the South Bay.

While Mancini often uses LEGOs to illustrate robotic principles, the menorah is a step up for him — literally.

“We’ve never built anything over a foot or two, so this is new for us, too,” said Mancini, who will be aided by more than a dozen young volunteers.

Marcus sees the unique menorah as a way to make Chanukah more fun for children. Fond memories, he hopes, will lead to greater adult involvement in Judaism.

Plus, building a menorah out of LEGOs seems uniquely Chabad-like to the rabbi.

“A cool thing about using LEGOs is, in the Chabad philosophy, everything in the world, as long as it’s not inherently evil, can be used to promote goodness and light and holiness,” he said.

“Everything brought into being is to be used for that purpose. So, the Internet, journalism, a piece of LEGO, when it’s employed for promoting a divine agenda, it creates a world of goodness.”

And, “it obviously grabs the kids’ attention.”