“Why is there never a Chanukah house?”
That was the question 8-year-old Benjamin Solomon asked when his family would watch a show called “The Great Christmas Light Fight” on TV a decade ago. Young Ben loved the automated flashing light shows and accompanying music that were featured in the reality show in which neighbors competed for the title of best Christmas decorations. He also wondered why he never saw any bright lights representing his tradition of Chanukah in his hometown, Livingston.
So he took matters into his own hands.
Benjamin Solomon is now 18 years old and a senior at the Frisch School in Paramus. His Chanukah light show has been evolving for the last 10 years. Combining his passion and talent for robotics, electronics, and mechanics with his love for Judaism, Ben has created an annual display that people come from miles away to see.
Ben’s mother, Serena Solomon, fondly remembers Ben’s fourth grade birthday party. Because his birthday falls on Christmas Eve, celebrating could be a challenge.
“So that year we had an idea,” Ms. Solomon said. “We had all his friends come with their families and we set up a screen outside on our cul-de-sac. We bought a radio receiver so people could listen to Ben’s movie choice, ‘Return of the Jedi,’ in their cars. We gave out popcorn to everyone and it was great!
“So now we had this radio receiver, and we were thinking what could we do with it?”
Ben is the youngest of five children. They were born in four years — there are triplets in the middle — so the Solomons always were looking for family activities that everyone could enjoy. When Ben got the idea to create a Chanukah display, the Solomons jumped on the idea as a family project. Ben’s brother is good at building things, his sisters are good at design, and Ben was at the helm for the electronics and programming. “This really became his baby,’ Ms. Solomon said.
Ben began learning about circuitry at his local library using a snap electronics kit. “You connect metal snaps and there’s an alarm or a buzzer or a light,” he said. “You snap these into place and there’s a switch. You could have different things turn on or off.
“I always thought it was really, really cool. And so, when I was growing up, I would play around with it, making different circuits and having stuff turn on and off. It was all much simpler than what I’m doing now, but that was what started the light show. It was a continuation of creating circuits and code.”
In ninth grade, Ben selected an engineering track at Frisch. That really focused on his passion; he became the captain of the robotics team in his sophomore year. Ms. Solomon loved what Ben’s interest was doing for him, saying it brought out his leadership and management skills. “So as his technical skills developed, he advanced the Chanukah light show,” she said.
Ben credits his Frisch robotics teacher, Travis Merritt, with encouraging his talent. “He is the one who kickstarted my love for engineering,” he said. “He noticed my passion very quickly. He would take me aside and say ‘Hey, just for fun, I’m going to give you a very specific task, unlike what everyone else is doing, just to see if you can do it.’
“And then over winter break, for example, he gave me a bunch of these electrical engineering components. He’d say, ‘This isn’t for any project. Just use them, test them, just have fun with them over break. I feel like you’d have fun with it.’ And I did.
“So, it was really nice how he noticed that passion and really did something about it.”
Ben has always wanted to up the ante on Chanukah representation. “There’s Christmas Oreos, Christmas Coca-Cola, Christmas chips,” he said. “And you would only see blue in like the clearance rack.”
The international robotics community has been supportive of Ben in online forums; he is able to ask questions and learn from other light show hobbyists. According to Ben, the only other Chanukah light show even close to his display is put on by a Detroit resident. And yes, Ben has befriended him too. A Christmas house in Chatham also has been an inspiration to Ben’s work, and that hobbyist has been helpful as well.
The show has gained popularity purely through word of mouth over the years. For safety concerns, the Solomons don’t advertise their address. The people in their synagogue, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, know about it, and they tell their friends. “And Ben tells his friends and then they tell their friends, and it’s kind of like, you know, ‘that crazy family that has the light show,’” Ms. Solomon laughed.
The Solomon family is very connected with Israel, and that adds even more meaning to their public display during this time of war and rising antisemitism.
“We’re very connected to the Ofakim community, MetroWest’s sister community in Israel,” Ms. Solomon said. “We’ve hosted people in our house from Ofakim. We’re also involved with HaZamir. So, you know, these things are very personal. What’s going on right now is very personal, and there’s a sense of anger, actually.
“We’re American. We have very strong American values. This is our country. We have a right to our expression. I have four kids on college campuses right now. As an American, growing up as an American in this country, you have a right to free speech, and you have a right to express yourself.
“It’s part of our mentality in our home. We’re going to give our children strength in who they are, religiously and culturally. But also, to be respectful of all other cultures. It’s about creating human connections and interpersonal relationships. And not being afraid.”
The Solomons see Ben’s light show as a lighthearted way not only to send a message of Chanukah to the community, but also to bolster their own resilience in this difficult time of war.
“We can do something positive in a very negative atmosphere,” Ms. Solomon said. “Which I think is really what it’s all about, just trying to do something to feel less powerless.”
“The war in Israel and the war against antisemitism here in the United States only illuminate my original motivation,” Ben said. “Back then, the light came from oil. Today it comes from LED lights. In my view, the lights we all share in celebrating our respective holidays in December only highlight our ability to find common ground and unity in this time of divisiveness.”
A new addition to the light displays this year is an Israeli flag with the message עם ישראל לא מפחד – the Jewish people are not afraid.
Each year, Ben adds another element, refining the old technology with more complicated programming as he learns new techniques and skills. But most importantly, he wants to enjoy it. “It’s really fun to watch the parade of cars that come to see it every year,” he said.
Even with acts of antisemitism and vandalism on the rise, Ben never considered canceling the light show this year. As for his pride in his culture and his support of Israel, Ben said, “I not only want to express it, but I also want to have fun with it. So, if I don’t do the light show, I’m kind of saying, ‘You win. I lose.’ And I’m not going to do that.
“I want to show the world that we’re not afraid.”
Ben will be taking a gap year in Israel after he graduates from Frisch this spring. He hasn’t decided on a program yet, but he knows he can’t go wrong. “The experience is going to Israel and not so much actually learning in Israel,” he said. “I think the whole point is being there and focusing on how do I grow spiritually in Israel.”
Because he plans on being in Israel next Chanukah, Ben has set a plan in motion to keep the light show going.
“Next year, it will be up to my parents,” he said. “I’ve taught them all my secrets. They don’t have to do anything — just put it up and plug stuff in and it should all work. Hopefully. That’s the plan.
“But in the future, when I have my own house, I’ll have my own light show. Then I’ll have kids, they’ll have fun with it, and it will be a tradition that I started.”
The show lights up on Thanksgiving and stays illuminated until New Year’s Day from 5 to 9 p.m. every evening except Fridays.