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Hanukkah shines a light in the darkness

Adam Rankin, 8, gives his Lego dreidel a test spin at Temple Beth-El’s Family Hanukkah Lego Challenge on Friday.
Adam Rankin, 8, gives his Lego dreidel a test spin at Temple Beth-El’s Family Hanukkah Lego Challenge on Friday.
Published Dec. 6, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG —Tonight Hanukkah lights will appear in windows, on dining tables and in front of synagogues and temples.

The Jewish Festival of Lights, which lasts eight days, is a time for traditional Hanukkah foods, songs and games.

But Hanukkah also embodies themes of freedom, identity, survival and rededication, each rooted in the ancient account of a small group of Jewish fighters and their inexplicable defeat of their oppressors.

"The survival of the Jewish people is itself a miracle of human history," Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg said. "Today the world is besieged with challenges. You often feel that nothing can be done. Hanukkah provides us with a dose of optimism."

The story of Hanukkah, which Luski said is a minor festival on the Jewish calendar, is one of miracles. It begins with Judah Maccabee and his small band of fighters and their victory over Syrian-Greek rulers who had forbidden Jews from practicing their faith and had defiled the Temple in Jerusalem.

The military victory was followed by another miracle when it was time to rededicate the Temple.

Only a small quantity of the "priestly-produced oil" was found to rekindle the Temple's eternal light, Luski said, but "the quantity enough for one day, actually lasted for eight days."

The candle-lighting at Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of the oil and the rededication of the Temple.

Like Luski, Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg also points to the holiday's relevance in contemporary society.

But the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas can be a challenge, said Torop, referring to what is called the December dilemma.

"There is the experience I think of most Jews and Jewish communities in America who face the dilemma of a society that erroneously assumes that, at this time of year, everybody is preparing for, and celebrating Christmas," he said.

"There is a lack of awareness that not only Jews, but Muslims and many other people who are not of the Christian faith do not celebrate Christmas. So there is the dilemma of how does one respond and how does one retain one's identity in the face of this overwhelming assumption."

On Friday, Torop's congregation, which has many interfaith families, will have its annual Hanukkah gathering. Everyone will arrive with a menorah for the "101 Menorahs" celebration, which this year will take place on the sixth night of Hanukkah.

"We are encouraging people to make donations to a social justice cause of their choice in lieu of giving gifts to themselves," Torop said.

"Hanukkah teaches that a small group of individuals can make a difference," Luski said. "That with our trust in God and our sense of self-respect, our optimism, that righteousness can overcome evil."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes