PANAMA CITY BEACH — Rabbi Mendel Havlin of the Chabad of Panama City Beach says Hanukkah is more than just a holiday.
It's a celebration of life and freedom.
In observance of the eight-day Jewish holiday that spans from Sunday to Dec. 6, Havlin and members of his local synagogue hosted the third annual Grand Menorah Lighting Event on Monday night at Pier Park.
There, with the sounds and smells of Jewish music and food present, dozens of people gathered to watch Havlin — with the help of PCB Mayor Mark Sheldon — light a 12-foot-tall menorah located near the entrance of the Grand Theatre.
Panama City Beach synagogue: to host Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony at Pier Park
Want to explain Hanukkah to your kids?: Here's our guide
"I'm very warm on the heart to see so many people (come to celebrate), not only from the Jewish community, (but) also people who are non-Jewish," Havlin said. "People are feeling a (connection) to the message of Hanukkah, which is about light."
Sheldon, who with Havlin used a scissor lift to light the menorah, said "it's always great" when people from different walks of life gather together within their community.
He, like Havlin, said the event was about "faith, hope and unity."
"When you see church (members) together and you see all of the families together and you see the celebration they're having, it just gives you a good spirit and you feel the (holiday) seasons are intact," Sheldon said. "It's just a great night."
Among those who attended the event was South Walton resident Sarah Jarnicki who said the night not only was a chance to celebrate Hanukkah, but also an opportunity to meet new people who share the Jewish faith and enjoy the freedoms that come with being a United States resident.
Jarnicki, who added that she still is finding her way around the local Jewish community, noted that she recently moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, as "one of the many people who decided to come on down to Florida" during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're partying (and) it's awesome," she said. "We're all Americans, and we value freedom. ... That's so much what Hanukkah is about. We see the gifts and how it can be similar to Christmas in some ways ... but it's really about freedom, feeling alive and being grateful for everything we're able to do."
The festival also garnered non-Jewish locals, including Stephanie Carpenter of Youngstown, who said she was there to support her Jewish friends.
Though the Jewish religion does not acknowledge Jesus Christ as the messiah, Carpenter said she as a Christian still can appreciate the religion because both share the same God.
"We have a lot of friends who are Jewish, and so we like to celebrate the holidays with them," Carpenter said. "We're Christian, but we also follow a lot of the Jewish principles.
"It doesn't matter their walk of life, our walk of life, we're like family."
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Chabad of PCB hosts third annual Grand Menorah Lighting Event