Carrying menorahs and covered dishes of food, families and single people walked quietly along Franklin and Elm streets Friday night toward Congregation Beth Shalom.
Blue lights and a “Happy Hanukkah” banner decorated the foyer inside the synagogue. After placing their salads, kugels and other dairy entrees and desserts on tables, congregation members went into the synagogue.
Volunteers had replaced chairs with 19 long tables. As they entered, families added their menorahs to the tables, already covered with dreidels and gelt (money given to children spinning the dreidels). Many men and boys seated at the tables wore the kippah head covering, a tradition of “always knowing God is above.”
Later, the light of the candles on the menorahs added beauty and a sense of peace to a night that followed a day of shock and tears over the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut school. Many congregation members said they found strength in coming together for Hanukkah.
“If this tragedy had happened on a random Tuesday, we’d have been by ourselves, but it was Shabbat and the seventh night of Hanukkah,” Rebecca Kotch said. “We are fortunate to be together and to have our children. They are playing dreidels and running around — happy.
“This is bittersweet. It is my son’s 7th birthday. I grew up in Newtown. I went to kindergarten there. It is a small town like Napa,” Kotch continued. “My son asked, ‘Mommy, why are your eyes so red?’”
Marsha Ewig came with her son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, ages 2 to 7. “It is beneficial for all of us to come together as a community — especially after what happened in Connecticut,” said Ewig, a congregation member for 30 years.
Tears gave way to singing in both Hebrew and English. Children played the dreidel game, then ducked under tables to pick up dropped gelt. There was laughter and eating as people of all ages celebrated the holiday.
In the kitchen, Jay Blitstein and crew were making potato latkes. Besides Blitstein, the latke crew consisted of Steve Veit, Don Krieger, Stan Press and Blitstein’s two sons, Alex and Josh Blitstein. They started preparing 135 pounds of potatoes at 2:30 p.m., and by 6 p.m. had made 200 latkes for the 175 celebrants.
“I have a Ph.D. in fried food,” Blitstein joked. “There is nothing that will bring a community together like a crispy potato latke.”
Music Director Gordon Lustig played guitar and led the congregants in singing about a dozen songs. Several people danced to the music. Ari Eisenberg, 13, danced and led a portion of the singing.
“It’s really fun. I’m having a good time,” Eisenberg said. “It’s good having a dinner with the Jewish community.”
This Hanukkah celebration covered the spectrum of human emotions: absolute joy in coming together as a synagogue family to celebrate life, and the acknowledgment that there is also horror in the world.
Rabbi Lee Bycel asked the congregation to touch someone during a prayer for those who had died that morning.
“The seventh night of Hanukkah should be a time of joy and hope. Yet with the tragedy in Connecticut, it is also a time of great sadness. I got calls from mothers today, in tears. We all need to hold our loved ones closer,” Bycel said.
“When we light these candles, I ask you to think of the courage of the Maccabees to stand up for what is right and to speak out. We need that courage now, more than ever,” he continued. “Judaism is about action.”
Hanukkah, also commonly spelled Chanukah, celebrates two miracles, Bycel explained.
One is the victory of a small, outnumbered army of Jews, known as the Maccabees, over the Greek army that occupied the Holy Land. The other is the miracle of the oil. As the Hanukkah story goes, after the Maccabees regained the temple from the Greeks, they found only enough pure and undefiled olive oil for fueling the menorah one day; but miraculously, the oil burned for eight days and nights.
The Maccabees’ story still resonates today, according to Bycel.
“We can let our voice be heard that this culture of violence is abhorrent, that we care enough to do something about it,” he said. “After all, that really is the lesson of the Maccabees, who had the courage to stand up for the right.”