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This year's Hanukkah celebrations are tempered by Israel's war with Hamas

A Menorah stands partly lit outside Hackney Town Hall to mark the arrival of Hanukkah on December 7, 2023 in London, England.
Carl Court
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Getty Images
A Menorah stands partly lit outside Hackney Town Hall to mark the arrival of Hanukkah on December 7, 2023 in London, England.

Thursday evening marks the start of Hanukkah. The week-long holiday commemorates the Maccabee revolt, when a family of rebels successfully rose up against an oppressive, anti-Jewish Greek rule. After winning against the Greeks and re-entering their temple, the Maccabees lit a makeshift menorah with a singular vial of lamp oil. According to legend, what was supposed to stay lit for one night, miraculously lasted for eight.

This season, the Festival of Lights is happening as the Israel-Hamas war continues to rage on. It also comes two months after the October 7 attacks in Israel that killed at least 1,200 people. The Associated Press estimates 16,200 Palestinians have been killed so far as a result of the conflict.

Because of the holiday's significance and popularity, Jewish communities all over the country are continuing to honor the occasion and acknowledge the meaning the festival holds.

Rabbi Eliana Fischel says peace is the focus of her congregation's celebration

"We are praying for peace first and foremost. There's a particular term called 'shalom rav' which means a great peace. We want a great peace to reign down on us, on our communities, on our families, but particularly on Israel and Gaza in this moment," Rabbi Fischel told NPR's Morning Edition.

Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C. will celebrate Hanukkah this year just as vibrant as any other year, but with a greater emphasis on peace and healing.

Hanukkah Celebration at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
/ Ori Hoffer
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Ori Hoffer
Hanukkah Celebration at Washington Hebrew Congregation.

One way to facilitate healing is through education, according to Rabbi Fischel. Prior to the attacks, they planned to have a five-part class on Israel centered around judicial reform.

"Of course that topic changed over," said Rabbi Fischel, "We've been having around 70 people here every Monday learning from political officials, from national officials, from Jewish officials about what's going on. So one way we're approaching this is through education. There's something healing in knowing, there's something healing in education."

WHC also has physical ties to Israel. Rabbi Fischel says they're in constant communication with their sister congregation, Or Hadash, in Haifa. Or Hadash's rabbi, Na'ama Dafni-Kellen, even visited once the war broke out to check in with the Washington congregants.

Rabbi Fischel said that she and her team are doing what they can to support those in need in Israel.

"We have started a fund to give relief to the kibbutzim down south that were devastated by these attacks; to raise money for an ambulance in Israel as well as to raise money for families of hostages and we have so far raised $500,000."

Child lighting candles at Washington Hebrew Congregation's Hanukkah celebration
/ Ori Hoffer
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Ori Hoffer
Child lighting candles at Washington Hebrew Congregation's Hanukkah celebration

As for what's planned at the temple, there will be text studies and services as usual, and fan-favorite snacks: latkes and sufganiyot.

And neon.

"We're actually theming our Shabbat Hanukkah with neon this year. We have not only our hanukkiyot but we're going to have glow sticks and neon lights," Rabbi Fischel said. "We're telling people to wear some white as a way to say we are really bringing a ton of light into this really dark time."

Across the country in Los Angeles, another congregation is focused on standing strong

"The theme of our community this year is stand strong. It really was chosen as the theme because the community is in transition from one rabbi to another rabbi – with the idea that in this moment of transition we need to stand strong," said Barry Lutz, the interim rabbi at West Hollywood's Kol Ami Reform Synagogue. "Given everything that's going on in our world, both in our country and now in Israel, it's somehow become a very fitting symbol."

Rabbi Lutz has been with his current temple for less than a year, and has been serving the Jewish community since 1984.

Rabbi Barry Lutz
/ Barry Lutz
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Barry Lutz
Rabbi Barry Lutz

He says that while his Hanukkah celebration will look essentially the same as previous years, the prayers and messaging are slightly different.

"We have incorporated prayers and readings that recognize this moment. There's a prayer for Israel that has become a regular part of our liturgy. There's a prayer for healing for all the victims – Israeli and Palestinian alike — all the innocent victims of this conflict," said Rabbi Lutz. "As we do our prayer for healing, we put up all the names of the hostages, to pray for their healing."

Hamas took over 240 hostages on October 7.

Since November 24th, 110 hostages have been released. Israel has released 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Nationally the U.S. has seen a rise in both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents since the attacks.

On whether growing anti-Jewish sentiment has been a topic of conversation with his congregants, Rabbi Lutz says the feeling and conversation is a familiar one.

"The community that I serve is at its core an LGBTQ community. Not only is there a heightened concern of antisemitism, but also a heightened concern of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in our country," he said. "There's been a dual concern that existed before October 7th."

Lutz's advice for this year's celebrations is to promote the true meaning of the holiday and spread as much light as you can.

"When you give part of something away you have less of it, but when you share light you have more of it. How can we be a source of light?" said Rabbi Lutz, "All that goes along with eating latkes and jelly doughnuts and singing songs and spinning dreidels and just enjoying each other's company."

Hanukkah continues through next Friday evening.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 9, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
This story has been revised to distinguish between the historical event of the Maccabean revolt, and the legend of the Hanukkah miracle.
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Shelby Hawkins
Shelby Hawkins is a producer who joined Morning Edition at the beginning of 2022. Before joining NPR, she interned in Chicago at WBEZ's audio news desk, where she focused on arts and culture. She also co-produced the documentary film, Sankofa Chicago, which won best educational film at Cannes World Film Festival. She holds an MA in Civic Media from Columbia College Chicago, and a BA in Multimedia Photojournalism and Biology from the same university. In her free time she works on puzzles and tries to keep her plants alive.