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By: CAPT Judah Epstein, USAFR

In late 2022, I was at Nellis Air Force Base for pre-deployment training. The training occurred during Chanukah, and I organized a menorah lighting at the base chapel, with about 15 people in attendance. But I wanted to do something else. Something big. And as an EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) tech, I was in the position to go big.

Before the holiday started, I went to my sergeant and asked if we could celebrate Chanukah in a unique way. Fortunately, he was open to suggestions. I came up with a plan to create a big menorah and light the candles with explosives. Now, I must clarify that my intention wasn’t to blow up the menorah; the goal was to simply light the candles. But in the EOD world, all things must go bang, so in short order, the idea got co-opted a bit. Thankfully, we got the green light to proceed.

During the week before Chanukah, I built the four-foot-tall, seven-foot wide “menorah” out of pallets, scrap wood, and cardboard, and spray painted it with a big, white menorah. Its nine candle holders were made of old containers that once held different explosives.

A festive demo like this wouldn’t be the same without friends, so we brought five EOD technicians and five non-EOD techs who served as “observers”—four Air Force personnel that were stationed at the base, two of whom were Jewish, plus a local Chabad rabbi. The whole shindig lasted about three hours—we drove out to the range, set up the demo, and directed the requisite safety briefs. The menorah was ready to go; its inner city gangsta look contrasting starkly with the clean and silent Nevada desert. But it wouldn’t be silent for long—the typical Chanukah candles’ wax and wicks had been replaced with a detonation cord and fuel, plus a bit of C-4 for extra effect, and the menorah’s glowing flames would shortly be replaced by a vicious fireball.

Feeling like a Jewish Wile E. Coyote, I and another EOD tech pulled the igniters for the time fuse cord, which began the six minute countdown—and then… Bam! All the candles ignited simultaneously for about a second, and, to our great joy, the whole thing blew heavenward with a tremendous explosion.

After the menorah “lighting,” Rabbi Wilansky put tefillin on the three of us Jews who were present. We all hung around together for a while, enjoying donuts which the rabbi had thoughtfully brought for the group.

It was a special event all around. For the two other Jewish Airmen, it was a really meaningful format to celebrate Chanukah in a military way; especially not being EOD guys, they were not used to playing with explosives. I believe it was the rabbi’s first time at Nellis, so it was a special experience for him too. And for the EOD techs who weren’t Jewish, it was exciting to participate in a Jewish holiday.

When I posted the story to Facebook, the reactions were varied. Some people were intrigued, while others were shocked that we actually blew up the menorah. (My response to one dour complainant: “The menorah is simply an inert vessel/container. The light is the symbolism. Nine regular candles produces a summation of ~2.7 million joules of energy per hour, while the explosive candle lighting I organized produced ~142 million joules of energy… all in about only plus or minus one second.”)

Whatever the case, I am certain that Judah Maccabee would have approved of it, but since he’s not around today, I stepped in to speak for him. I feel that I’m in a position to do so, especially because I am a military officer and outdoorsman named Judah. I can therefore (somewhat) authoritatively state: “Judah Maccabee approves of this menorah lighting.”

Originally published in the Chanukah/Purim 5784 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.