Come for the latkes, stay for the gelt drop
Back in 1958, when Eero Saarinen designed what became the Bell Labs building in Holmdel, it is not likely that a giant Hanukkiah was included in his plans. The renowned Finnish-American architect and industrial designer filled the building with innovative details, including turning the first floor into a giant, plant-filled atrium.
Bell Labs became a world-famous research and development center in which scientists pioneered the development of cellphones, touch-tone dialing, and fiber-optic communications, amassing seven Nobel Prizes.
But after 44 years, the storied Bell Labs was shuttered, and stood empty until 2013, when it was bought by some very creative thinkers at Inspired by Somerset Development and renamed Bell Works.
Today, the building has been transformed into what the developers call a Metroburb, which they define as, “A large-scale mixed-use building, with great access, office, retail, entertainment, fitness, everything you would find in a metropolis but in a great suburban location.”
And that atrium has been reimagined into a publicly accessible pedestrian street – a place for the thousands employed by the many companies leasing space in the building, as well as neighbors and other visitors, to find restaurants, shops, mini-basketball courts, and the Holmdel Library.
It also hosts all sorts of events, including a farmers market, crafts fairs, and holiday celebrations. So it should come as no surprise that, on Dec. 7—the first night of the holiday —at 5:30, the left side of the atrium will be filled with a huge Hanukkah celebration, organized by Rabbi Shmaya and Rochi Galperin of the Chabad Jewish Center of Holmdel.
According to the Rabbi, Chabad had hosted Hanukkah celebrations every year since he and his family moved to Holmdel in 2008.
“We’d rented space in the firehouse before, and that was great. But once Bell Works opened, it offered more opportunities for activities and more space for people. Last year we had between 350 to 400 people, all eating latkes (potato pancakes), and sufganiot (jelly doughnuts), while some kids created a mural and others participated in other arts and crafts activities.”
Bell Works has been attracting companies and visitors from throughout the area, and the same is true for the Hanukkah celebration. Shari Steinfeld says that she always sees people there who live in all the surrounding towns.
“People seem to just know to go there,” she said. “It’s a lovely event. I even run into neighbors who I didn’t even know were Jewish!”
Steinfeld, who is President of the Board of Trustees of Marlboro’s The Hebrew Academy, especially likes the fact that teens involved in the Chabad youth groups help out at each of the stations. “It’s a real family event. My kids, who are 15 and 12, look forward to it.”
The centerpiece of the event is a huge Hanukkiah comprising tiles initially painted by children in 2017, the first year the event was held at Bell Works. Rabbi Galperin said the celebration is timed so that office workers can join in the singing and celebrating that precedes the lighting of the menorah. He also hopes they will stay for the most exciting moment: the Gelt Drop. That’s when teenagers go up to the second floor and toss chocolate gelt (coins) to the children (and adults) eagerly waiting below.
“This is always the highlight,” Rabbi Galperin said. “The kids love it. And so do the adults!”
While the hanukkiah in Bell Works is the largest one in Holmdel, it is not the only one. Another large menorah is on the grounds of the Township Hall, about half a mile down Crawfords Corner Road from Bell Works. It was designed and built as an Eagle Scouts project by Ryan Smith in 2012, when he was a member of Holmdel Boy Scout Troop 331. Although Township Hall sits at an intersection, it has never served as a town center.
According to a Bell Works spokesperson, “Bell Works functions as a de-facto downtown for Holmdel. Open seven days a week, it is a family-friendly and community-centric venue.”
Saying the Hanukkah celebration aligns perfectly with their vision for the space, she added, “With many in the area interested in celebrating Hanukkah in a public manner, the event offers a mechanism for the Jewish community to celebrate Hanukkah and meet other Jewish families.”
Asked how many the Bell Works celebration can accommodate, Rabbi Galperin said, “I don’t know. We’ve been growing every year, and we’ve never run out of gelt, or sufganiot, or latkes.”
He’s ordered 400 jelly donuts for this year, a thousand potato pancakes, and gallons of applesauce.
“To be honest,” he said, “I’d love to have so many people that, at the end of the evening, the food is almost all gone!”
JoAnn Abraham began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.