While masses of people are decking the halls and wrapping gifts in preparation for Christmas, for Jews it can be a time to celebrate the very “gift” of being Jewish during the eight days of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah starts on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. This year it starts at sunset on Dec. 21.
“The holiday itself is a celebration of Jewish survival,” said Rabbi Michelle Goldsmith of Temple Beth Shalom and president of the Sarasota-Manatee Rabbinical Association. “When you celebrate that holiday, you celebrate the Jewish community.”
Often celebrated around the same time as Christmas, Hanukkah means “rededication” and celebrates Jews being different from the majority. The Temple of Jerusalem was rededicated after the Maccabees overcame the Seleucid Empire around 165 BCE, according to history.
The origins of Hanukkah traditions, sometimes referred to as the “Festival of Lights,” center around the story of an oil lamp found in the temple that was to be lit, but which only contained enough oil to be lit for one day. The lamp stayed lit for eight days and was seen as a miracle.
Judah the Maccabee, who replaced the emperor of Seleucid, declared the holiday be celebrated each year to commemorate the temple’s rededication. And each year since, Hanukkah reaffirms the Jewish identity and their struggles in societies dominated by secular beliefs.
“The Maccabees and the community had the chance to live just like everybody else, but they rejected it. They chose to remain Jews, and rather than see it as a burden, they saw it as a gift. Being a Jew is a gift, something I celebrate every day,” Goldsmith said.
Although a minor holiday in comparison to Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah has become more important to celebrate in recent years for American Jews because of its proximity to Christmas. Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Chabad of Sarasota said it is important to have public Hanukkah celebrations, especially for Jewish children, because they are bombarded with Christmas this time of year.
“It’s very challenging for parents of Jewish children to walk through the mall and hear about Santa,” he said. “There are no Jewish songs, no Jewish traditions in school. We feel we have to have a celebration.”
This year for the first time, a community-wide celebration at Five Points Park in Sarasota will bring together several area synagogues and other Jewish organizations to commemorate the holiday. And with the help of grants from the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation, there will be 12 other local Hanukkah celebrations in Manatee and Sarasota counties, including the “Chanukah Extravaganza” on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch and an interfaith celebration at Bounce U in Sarasota.
“We feel proud of the cooperation and collaboration that’s taken place,” said Sharon Kunkel, director of communications at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation. “I feel the work we’re doing now is going to make my kids proud of who they are. It’s fostering a greater sense of understanding of what Jewish means to Jewish people,”
Four different Hanukkah parties are scheduled for various ages of local singles, with one party specifically for gay and lesbian Jews. The motivation was to bring people together for the Hanukkah holiday that might otherwise spend it alone, said Rabbi Brenner Glickman of Temple Emanu-El, organizer of the parties.
“When I came to town two years ago, there was no outreach for Jewish singles,” he said. “We sought to bring people together and we used Hanukkah as an occasion.
Hanukkah festivities from Bradenton to Venice include the lighting of menorahs, music, crafts, dreidel games, and traditional Hanukkah foods such as potato latkes and fried doughnuts.
“It’s a really joyous holiday,” said Glickman. “It’s a very happy time.”
In spite of anti-Semitism still present around the world, public Hanukkah celebrations have grown, especially locally.
Last year’s celebration at Lakewood Ranch attracted nearly 700 people, with the community-wide celebration in downtown Sarasota seeing even more attendees.
The Hanukkah celebrations provide a feeling of solidarity for Jews, in an area not overflowing with Jewish life, said Goldsmith.
“This is a way our children and adults can feel a sense of community,” she said. “We are all one community. There’s strength in that.”
Rabbi Larry Mahrer of Temple Beth El in Bradenton welcomed the community-wide celebration. “I think there is more that unites our varying congregations than what divides us. Having this type of community-wide celebration is important,” he said.