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Hanukkah celebrations range from festive commemorations to a time to reflect

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Nes Gadol Haya Shahm.

In English it translates to “a great miracle happened there.”

The first letter of each of these Hebrew words is represented on the dreidel, or spinning top, and refers to the story of the Hanukkah holiday, celebrated from Dec. 2-10 this year.

According to the website, myjewishlearning.com, Hanukkah, which is known as the Festival of Rededication or the Festival of Light, celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the Syrian Greeks in 164 B.C.E.

A small band of Jews in Judea led by Judah Maccabee rose up against the oppression and religious persecution of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Judah and his tiny army were greatly outnumbered by the Syrian Greeks yet managed to overthrow them (Miracle No. 1). They captured the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned into a pagan shrine, cleansed it and rededicated it. When they went to rekindle the Eternal Light, which according to Jewish tradition is to be lit continuously, there was  enough oil left to last only one day. The oil lasted eight days (Miracle No. 2) until more oil could be obtained from afar, and thus the festival is celebrated for eight days by lighting the menorah, or eight-branched candelabra.

Rabbi Mordechai Levin of Congregation Beth Israel in Munster noted that the story of the Maccabees represents the Hebrews' first fight for religious freedom because the Greeks who occupied the land of Israel wanted to forbid the practice of Judaism, as well as other religions in the areas they controlled.

“This fight for Jewish national independence and freedom of religion was important not only for the Jewish people, but for western civilization,” he said. “If Judaism had disappeared, there would not be Christianity later. All the history of the western world would be different.”

Levin’s congregation celebrates Hanukkah by holding special services during the eight days of the festival, telling the story of the Maccabees and lighting the menorah.

At the Chabad of Munster, Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov sees Hanukkah as an opportunity to continue its daily outreach. “Chabad in general is about sharing with others, so we share our menorah with others,” he said. “The menorah brings light to the darkness outside, so we place it at the doorway or in the window.”

He added that as Jewish holidays always begin at sundown, the menorah must be lit after dark each night. “Chabad takes it further and has public menorahs in addition to inside the home,” he explained. “We display large menorahs on top of our cars, in public squares and in front of our homes to bring the light out to the furthest reaches possible.”

Zalmanov said that while Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday, it is important for the children. Because of its proximity to Christmas, many families have adopted the tradition of gift giving so the Jewish children don’t feel left out. However, the original Hanukkah tradition had been to give children a small amount of Hanukkah gelt, or money, on each night of the holiday. “This gets the kids involved and teaches the value of money and 'tzedakah' or charitable giving,” said Zalmanov. “We encourage the children to give a portion of their gelt to those in need.”

Hanukkah is often celebrated with parties where it is customary to play games with dreidels and eat foods fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil from the Eternal Light. The most common Hanukkah foods are latkes, or potato pancakes, which are of Ashkenazi European origin, and sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts of Israeli tradition. Temple Israel in Gary's Miller area hosts a  community Hanukkah party where members bring pot luck dishes, and everyone gets into the spirit of the holiday.

While there are festive, fun parts of Hanukkah, Temple Israel’s Rabbi Robin Damsky also noted that it’s important to focus on the lessons of the holiday.

“For me, the most important aspect is about righting injustice and the power of the few against the many,” she said. “When I hear about the light, that is not simply about the solstice and bringing light to the darkest part of the year; it’s about the within each of us.”

Damsky likes to meditate on the lit candles of the menorah each night because she believes they “relight our inner flame.” She said it’s a good time to reflect on our priorities. “What is your light to bring? What justice do you have to bring to the world?” she asked. “What wrong do you want to right?”

This article originally ran on nwitimes.com.

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