‘The miracle … is our perseverance’

Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights, a name that has significance every year, but perhaps is especially meaningful in 2018.

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel said that the Jewish community is coming out of a dark time that occurred on October 27 when 11 Jewish worshippers were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill district. It was the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history.

She said Jews in the Altoona area have close ties to people in Squirrel Hill, and particularly congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“It feels like a loss in the family,” she said.

In the Jewish faith, when someone experiences the loss of a friend or loved one, those who are grieving go thorough a 30-day period of mourning, known as Sheloshim, the Hebrew word for 30. It is a practice based on Scripture, she said, noting that the Jews mourned Moses’ death as well the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother and first head of the priesthood, for

30 days.

The first seven days of the mourning period are known as Shiva, which is Hebrew for seven. During those first seven days, the grieving family stays at home and the community visits them to offer comfort and support. After that time, the family transitions back to its normal routine, but does not attend celebratory events during the mourning period.

“When the loss is still fresh, we take time to process it. It’s a bridge between the immediacy of loss and going back to a normal routine,” Korotkin said.

For those mourning the loss of life at the Tree of Life synagogue, the days of mourning ended Monday with a service at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center, less than a week before Hanukkah begins at sunset on Sunday.

Korotkin said the holiday will help people come out of the darkness.

“It will bring light to our families and community,” she said. “Hanukkah can start the healing process.”

Because the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar one, Korotkin noted that Hanukkah falls on different dates every year.

“It is fortuitous that we are able to come together to share light, to share the meaning of the festival,” she said.

Korotkin said, “the miracle of Hanukkah is our perseverance. Every single generation has gone through this. It is our perseverance over those who try to assimilate us or destroy us that is the miracle.”

She said Jews draw on their history to remember that during their darkest times, their faith in each other and faith in God beat back their enemies and the power of darkness.

Such was the case more than 2,000 years ago when Judah the Maccabee and his men gained victory over the Syrian army in 164 BCE. At that time, the Jews were being oppressed by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes who wanted the Seleucid Empire, which included Israel, to follow Greek ways. Under his reign, practicing the Jewish faith was banned and those who did faced death. The Jewish Temple was turned into a pagan shrine that included a statue of the Greek god Zeus and the sacrifice of pigs.

After defeating the Syrians, Judah Maccabee and his troops cleaned the Temple and rebuilt the Jewish altar. It was rededicated to God, and it is from this action that the holiday gets its name. Hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew.

According to tradition, when the Jews rededicated the Temple, there was only enough oil in the lamp to burn for one day, but instead it miraculously burned for eight days until more oil could be prepared.

To commemorate the miracle, another candle is lit on the Hanukkah, an eight branch candelabrum, each night until all eight candles are lit on the final night of the holiday.

“We light one candle the first night, two candles the second night, etc.,” said Korotkin. “It is a process to bring us out of darkness gradually.”

“Every day when we add a light, we signify that the miracle was greater (with each passing day),” said Cantor Benjamin Matis of Agudath Achim Congregation. He explained that each succeeding day that the light in the Temple burned despite only having enough oil for one day made the miracle even greater.

He said when Jews light the Hanukkah in their homes, “the miracle builds as we build more light.”

Matis, too, reflected on how Jews have been able to overcome oppression and efforts to destroy them and their faith in the past. He mentioned the Spanish Inquisition which lasted from about 1478 to 1834. It was a period when Jews were driven out of Spain, forced to convert to Christianity and tortured and killed for their faith. He also said the Holocaust was a time when Jews in the European ghettos were living under the worst of circumstances, yet evidence indicates that they continued to observe their holidays despite the oppression.

Matis said while there is an upsurgence in anti-Semitism today, Jews do not feel like they are alone. He said the Altoona community came together and showed tremendous support after the Tree of Life shootings.

“Life is for the living,” he said, “and how you live is a celebration of God.”