A light in the darkness: Hanukkah celebrations take on special meaning amid war in Gaza, rise in antisemitism

Tamar Helfen talks about the meaning of Hanukkah during an event celebrating the first day held in Northampton where community gathered to  light the first candles.

Tamar Helfen talks about the meaning of Hanukkah during an event celebrating the first day held in Northampton where community gathered to light the first candles.

Rabbi Tuvia Helfen lights the candle for the first day of Hanukkah during an event on Main Street in Northampton last Thursday night where community gathered to sing and celebrate.

Rabbi Tuvia Helfen lights the candle for the first day of Hanukkah during an event on Main Street in Northampton last Thursday night where community gathered to sing and celebrate. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

Community gathered with Rabbi Tuvia Helfen to celebrate and light the candles for the first day of Hanukkah.

Community gathered with Rabbi Tuvia Helfen to celebrate and light the candles for the first day of Hanukkah. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Community gathered  in Northampton to  celebrate and light the candles for the first day of Hanukkah.

Community gathered in Northampton to celebrate and light the candles for the first day of Hanukkah. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 12-10-2023 4:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — This year, Jewish families across the Pioneer Valley are partaking in traditional Hanukkah festivities, such as lighting the menorah, feasting on latkes and spinning the dreidel.

But it’s impossible to celebrate this year’s Hanukkah, which began last Thursday night and continues through this Friday, without acknowledging the difficulties Jews in America have faced over the past year, with the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza two months ago and a noted rise in antisemitic incidents across the United States that began long before that.

At a public menorah lighting of the first candle in Northampton last Thursday night, held in front of the Urban Outfitters building on Main Street, Rabbi Tuvia Helfen of the city’s Chabad-Lubavitch orthodox synagogue, told the gathered crowd that the candle this year symbolized what it always has symbolized — a light amidst the darkness.

“My son recently became engaged. And amidst the crisis that our people are in, I felt the joy of a mitzvah and how it breaks through, how we can have these joyful moments,” he said. “In all truth, the Jewish people have known many dark times and we’ve grown many lights throughout all those times.”

Tamar Helfen, the wife of the rabbi, said that the lighting also was a way to express the pride of being Jewish, publicly displaying the menorah rather than hiding out of fear of oppression. She also said that the ancient story of Hanukkah, rooted in reclaiming Jerusalem from Selucid oppression, was applicable to modern struggles within the American Jewish community.

“The Torah is not a chronological history book,” she said. “Everything that was applicable then is applicable now.”

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For others in the crowd, the events of the past year, particularly the Israel-Hamas war, have made an impact on how they view the holiday.

“For a long time, I’ve preferred Hanukkah to be a more quiet experience,” said Wendy Foxman of Leeds. “But we need to come together and support each other during this time, regardless of our positions. I think we all want this war to end.”

Since the outbreak of the war on Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters massacred more than 1,000 Israelis, there have been divisions both nationally and within the Jewish community on how the conflict has subsequently unfolded.

Demonstrations against the war have been frequent on college campuses and elsewhere across the Pioneer Valley, including from Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, protesting against more than 1 million people who have been displaced and more than 17,000 killed in Gaza since the war’s outbreak, according to authorities in the strip, as well as calling for a permanent cease-fire.

The events in Gaza have also led to fears among the American Jewish community that it could lead to a spike in antisemitism, something which is already considered on the rise. Even before the war’s outbreak, the FBI reported that the number of antisemitic hate crime incidents increased by 37% in 2022, the most recent year available.

Owen Zaret, the only Jewish member of the Easthampton City Council, authored a resolution adopted by the city last month that denounces antisemitism in all forms and calls for community members to be educated on antisemitism through public events, workshops and school curriculum. Residents shared emotion stories about increased antisemitism in the community at a council meeting before the vote last month.

Growing up in a large Jewish community in Woodbridge, Connecticut and attending a Jewish parochial school, Zaret was largely insulated from antisemitism as a child. In recent years, Zaret said he’s felt the need to become more vocal in community organizing and raising awareness about antisemitism.

“I wanted to try to draw a road map and create more of a framework for other communities to say, ‘OK, here’s some background and objective data about antisemitism, and obviously we reject it, but here’s how we’re going to reject it,’” Zaret said. “Whether it be through education or better hate crime policies for law enforcement and making sure that Jewish cultural events are recognized by the city, such as Jewish American History Month or Holocaust Memorial Day.”

Zaret said he’s talked with several other Jewish people, both locally and nationally, and said there was a definite sense of fear and rising antisemitism to levels not seen since their grandparents’ generation.

“We are a people with great cultural trauma, certainly from the Holocaust and even before that with pogroms in Russia and then even before that,” he said. “That certainly is something that we carry with us all of the time. And I think right now it’s significantly heightened over the last few months.”

For this year’s Hanukkah, Zaret said its message of shining light in the darkness was more important than ever. He took part in a public menorah lighting ceremony on Sunday, held at Easthamptom’s Millside Park. Another menorah-lighting festival took place in Northampton on Sunday at Congregation B’Nai Israel, featuring live music, serving of traditional latkes and sufganiyot food and lighting of more than one hundred menorahs.

“Hanukkah is the embodiment of the historical struggles of the Jewish people and a testimony to their persistence and perseverance over the centuries,” he said. “Hanukkah allows each of us to individually bring light to the world, but also to join together to make that light shine even brighter.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.