Miami Beach

Festival of blue lights: Cops ticket dozens in South Beach Hanukkah parade

A Hanukkah menorah lights up South Beach.
A Hanukkah menorah lights up South Beach.

This year, like all other years, the Friends of Lubavitch began its Hanukkah parade of cars and giant menorahs through the streets of South Beach, escorted by Miami Beach police.

But this year, unlike any other, instead of leading the gaggle through intersections and crosswalks, officers ticketed 30 parade-goers — including several rabbis — for running red lights and endangering pedestrians.

Now Jewish spiritual leaders and their congregants are asking why they were directed through intersections, only to be pulled over and cited. And why, they want to know, did the event permit have a 7 p.m. starting time when in years past it allowed for a much earlier start?

They also say that without an official escort, they were careful to drive in groups of three and four cars, stopping at all red lights and carefully checking crosswalks.

“They waved me and a friend through a red light, then ticketed me for not stopping,” said Rabbi Yitzach Teitelbaum, whose gold Toyota Camry sported a big menorah on its roof. “The only reason I went through is because he waved me through.”

Miami Beach police, meanwhile, said parade-goers were forewarned that festivities were to begin no earlier than 7 p.m., or citations would be issued. The fear: traffic congestion and possible harm to children dancing near the vehicles.

Officers say they didn’t coax drivers through red lights, but they waited for them to commit the traffic violations before signaling them over. And they say the police major in charge of the motorcycle patrol visited the gathering spot and told organizers not to leave early.

“Listen, it’s a great event,” Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates said Tuesday. “We don’t want this type of conflict. It’s a great celebration. We just want it done safely.”

An email from Miami Beach police Officer Hyok Chong to Oates summed up the police perspective: “The parade procession caused traffic hazards to pedestrians and motorists which necessitated monitoring and enforcement.”

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said the city wanted the parade to be held at an off-peak traffic hour.

"It's a shame that they jeopardized the safety of the police escort with their behavior by not following proper directions and laws,” he said. “Whether you're Jewish, Catholic, white or black, Miami Beach has laws to protect the safety of our entire community, and they must be obeyed."

According to city records, two people, including organizer Rabbi Avrohom Korf, were cited for driving too slowly. Four people were ticketed for failing to yield at a crosswalk. Thirteen drivers were ticketed for running a red light. And one person got a ticket for riding within an occupied lane.

The permit, signed by City Manager Jimmy Morales and issued Dec. 4, was clear. Above the parade route and city services, the permit listed in big, bold letters: “PARADE MAY NOT BEGIN BEFORE 7 P.M.”

The next sentence: “Any deviation from this is a violation of permit and will result in citation and shutting down event.”

Korf, the parade organizer and Chabad leader, requested a start time of 5:30 p.m. for Dec. 7, said Max Sklar, who heads tourism and economic development in Miami Beach and issues the permits. But a new city policy, which no longer allows parades and other events to interfere with rush hour, put a stop to the plans.

“He didn’t like that,” Sklar said of Korf, who received one of the first tickets — for driving too slowly.

Korf, reached by phone Tuesday, declined to comment.

The Hanukkah Car Parade has been a mainstay in Miami Beach for more than 30 years. Led by Korf and the Friends of Lubavitch — an umbrella group for synagogues in South Florida and across the country — the procession begins each year before 6 p.m. Then it snakes its way through South Beach and north to Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, where food, games and music await.

This year’s event kicked off at about 5:45 p.m. at Alton Road and 12th Street, with a couple of motorcycle cops taking note nearby. Once the pack reached Washington Avenue and began heading south toward Fifth Street, they began getting pulled over.

First, participants said they were ticketed for running an intersection at Washington and 14th Street. Then several people got tickets for driving dangerously through a crosswalk at Washington and Fifth Street. Eventually they all headed north on Collins Avenue — many with tickets in hand — and reached Gulfstream.

On Wednesday, Korf and city leaders will try to reach a detente. The rabbi has a scheduled sit-down with Sklar and Oates.

“The permit makes it emphatically clear it can’t start before 7 p.m.,” Oates said. “It’s a great event but not an easy one to police. We’re going to talk about how we’re going to work the event in the future in light of the dangerous and reckless participation this year.”

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.