Nov/Dec
2016

Spreading Light and Joy: B'nai Israel Synagogue Hanukkah Celebration

Written by Gina Dewink Photography by Alex Lupu
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Traditional songs, community gathered together, candlelight—these are some of the major elements of the annual Hanukkah celebration at B'nai Israel Synagogue (BIS), Dan Abraham Jewish Cultural Center In Rochester.

Rabbi Michelle Werner defines Hanukkah as a “minor holiday in the cycle of the Jewish year.” So, why all the fanfare and festivities? Congregation member Ana Folpe explains, “Hanukkah falls into the time of other solstice and 'light holidays' and has become popular as a result.” This year the annual Festival of Lights celebration runs from December 24 to January 1, the eight days and nights of Hanukkah.

HANUKKAH 101

Hanukkah, which means “rededication” in Hebrew, is a celebration of the Maccabees regaining control of Jerusalem and rededicating the Second Temple. Despite having only enough altar oil for one day, the Temple's flame continued to burn for eight days. 

Rabbi Werner explains, “There are eight candles plus one shammash candle on the menorah (or hannukiyah). This is to remind Jews that despite one night of oil, the menorah of the rededicated Temple burned for eight days. Jewish law dictates that we should share the light and share the joy. When you see electric menorahs in windows, this is not just a decoration. It is also to share joy during the darkest days of the year.”

Folpe agrees, “There is such beauty and eloquence in reciting the Hanukkah blessings over candlelight. I enjoy lighting them each night with the kids. It reminds us that we are all candles and lights in the darkness for each other, whatever the time of year.”

TRADITIONS IN ROCHESTER

“The key Hanukkah event at BIS is, of course, a community meal,” Folpe explains. “It includes lots of homemade latkes (fried potato pancakes). They are delicious, especially when they are made by Jacque Sourkes, a member of the synagogue. Everyone brings their menorah, and a long table is filled with their light and warmth.” 

The celebration continues with a performance by the congregation children. Gradually, the adults join, culminating in a traditional sing-along. Folpe continues, “We also play dreidel, which is a gambling game with a small, spinning top. The Hebrew letters on its sides (nun, gimel, hay, shin) are the rules of the game and a reminder that

'A Great Miracle Happened There' (Jerusalem). The phrase is 'Nes gadol hayah sham' in Hebrew.”

For Folpe, the best part of the celebration is seeing friends and family gather around the holiday foods. “I personally can eat a lot of latkes,” she says with a chuckle. 

Rabbi Werner states, “My favorite part is when we come together to light the candles together. At home, we have each lit eight candles. But when we come together in the synagogue, we bring all of our candlelight together. With the lights off, we can all see and feel how
our community’s faith can literally light the entire room.”

LIGHTS AROUND THE WORLD

Solstice, or light, holidays are present in many different faiths and cultures. They all seem to reassure their followers during the darkest time of the year. Christians have Christmas; Hindus have Diwali; Thailand has Loi Krathong; and others include Kwanzaa and St. Lucia's Day. The Romans had a solstice festival called Saturnalia. Folpe adds, “Some believe that our current light holidays come from the crazy year's end party that stretched from one end of the Roman Empire to the other. It's probably been with us in one form or another since prehistoric times when life was even darker at the solstice.”

Rabbi Werner concludes by saying, “It's a special time of year, whatever your tradition, as we gather together to bring light to
the darkness.”

Gina Dewink is a civic-minded writer enjoying the diversity and camaraderie of the Rochester community.