An oversize menorah will not be the only thing lit outside Heinz Field on Dec. 16, prior to the Steelers taking on the New England Patriots.
In fact, if things go as planned, hundreds of folks will turn out to join nine homegrown millennials for their fourth-annual Menorahgate, a tailgate party to celebrate friendship, football and the holiday of Chanukah.
Friends since they were kids, the group of 27- and 28-year old guys — most have known each other since they were students at Community Day School or campers at Emma Kaufmann Camp — have turned this year’s event into a fundraiser for the victims of the Tree of Life massacre.
Their original goal was to raise $1,000 by Dec. 16 through a fundraising link on Facebook. That goal was met within five hours. By Nov. 26, more than $20,000 had been pledged.
While Menorahgate 2018 will occur about a week after the conclusion of Chanukah due to the Steelers schedule, the event’s organizers are still planning to mark the holiday as they have done together since 2015.
“This came about because we were going to a Steelers night game [in 2015] and we wanted to tailgate,” said Andrew Exler, one of Menorahgate’s original seven founders. “Since it was also a night of Chanukah, we decided to bring a menorah to the tailgate and we lit the menorah before going into the game. Our entire group is Jewish and from Pittsburgh.”
That tailgate party with its lit menorah attracted a lot of attention from other fans who “loved what we were doing,” so the group decided to keep the momentum going, “since there is always a Steelers game that falls around Chanukah,” Exler explained.
Each year since then, the event has grown, with Menorahgate 2017 attracting more than 75 revelers.
Last year, the men talked about making 2018’s Menorahgate a fundraiser. The focus of the fundraiser became clear after the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building, where many of them had deep connections.
It “felt right to give back to Tree of Life,” said Ben Haber, a lifetime member of the congregation, whose great-grandparents were charter members.
Through friends, Haber knew some of the victims of the Oct. 27 attack, he said, and he “would see [victim] Cecil [Rosenthal] all the time.”
“I’m still in shock,” Haber said. “It’s unbelievable. And it’s definitely a big wake-up call that there is still hatred out there.”
Exler also grew up at Tree of Life.
“I had my bar mitzvah there,” he said, “and my parents were married there.”
Adam Danenberg, a pilot for Republic Airline and one of the original Menorahgaters, is also a “member of the Tree of Life family,” he said. He celebrated his bar mitzvah there, and his great-grandfather was a founder of the congregation. His mother, Judy Danenberg, is a kosher caterer who frequently caters events at that building.
“We knew five of the people who passed away,” Danenberg said.
This will be Ethan Silverman’s first experience at Menorahgate. Silverman, who moved back to Pittsburgh from New York City last spring, is looking forward to getting together with his childhood buddies to “celebrate the lives of the people who were lost.”
“This happened in our back yard,” said Silverman, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and now lives in Lawrenceville. “It awoke me to try to figure out something to help. This is my small contribution. And this made me realize how close my group of friends is.”
Several businesses have stepped up to donate food, a U-Haul truck and lots of tables, according to Danenberg, and six people are providing parking passes for the Red Lot 7C, the location of the tailgate.
While the Menorahgate men still grapple with all that has been lost in the community where they grew up, their hearts are warmed by the support they have seen coming in from near and far.
“It’s nice to have the money being poured into our community, and to see the support from around the world, but it is sad to see our synagogue now known for [the attack],” Danenberg said.
“There is money coming from people we don’t even know, and that shows there are a lot of people out there that care,” added Haber.
All are welcome to join in the festivities, which will begin at noon on Dec. 16, Exler said. The game begins at 4:25 p.m.
By hosting a celebration before a Steelers game, with lots of food and a DJ, “we are trying to honor the victims in the most Pittsburgh way possible,” he said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at