ST. GEORGE — As a fog of darkness and worry seemingly clouds parts of the world during a time of conflict and mounting tensions, the days are coming when that darkness may be dispelled by the candlelight.
Such is the message of Rabbis Mendy Cohen and Helene Ainbinder this Hanukkah season as they spoke with St. George News about the importance of the holiday for Southern Utah’s Jewish community during a time of war between Israeli forces and Hamas militants half a world away.
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, starts this Thursday, Dec. 7, and runs for eight days. It commemorates the victory of the ancient Hebrews over those who sought to crush their faith and spiritual identity. The victory is symbolized by the miracle of light connected to the lighting of the menorah.
As in recent years, the Chabad Jewish Community Center of Southern Utah has hosted menorah lightings in St. George – and more recently in Cedar City – to highlight the holiday and bring people together. It is that coming together as a supportive community that holds special significance this year, Cohan said.
“A message of Hanukkah is saying that we have to come together in unity from all backgrounds and all faiths to support one another, and to eradicate evil, to eradicate hatred, and to bring in peace and harmony throughout the whole world,” Cohen said. “Especially with what’s going on today.”
Except for a short-lived ceasefire last week, the state of Israel has been in a state of war with Hamas militants out of Gaza since Oct. 7, which has left thousands on both sides displaced, injured or dead. The conflict has since gone on to include blows with Hezbollah at the northern end of Israel on the Lebanese border.
In this file photo, Rabbi Mendy Cohen, of the Chabad Jewish Center of St. George, attends the tabernacle tour and shares what the tabernacle means in Judaism, St. George, Utah, Nov. 9, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
“In Israel, it’s very devastating for the Jewish people,” Cohen said. “I want you to know that it’s difficult, it’s very hard.”
In the first two weeks of the war, incidents of antisemitism in the United States have risen over 400%, according to Reuters and other news agencies.
People are being attacked for who they are, Cohen said, just as they were in ancient times. While the war the Jews waged against Assyrian Greeks over religious freedom that Hanukkah highlights and the current Israel-Hamas War have their obvious differences, both Cohen and Ainbinder said there is a common undercurrent — people are being attacked and killed for being Jewish.
Along the way, others are being caught in the crossfire, Ainbinder said.
“We want to protect our people, and our way of life,” she said. “But Israel, as my son says, most people think Israel is only for Jewish people. It’s all Jewish people. That’s not the case. We have Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, Hindus – we have many, many diverse, religions and peoples.”
Jews don’t want to kill people, Ainbinder said, but rather protect and save lives and live in peace. She also reiterated what Cohen and others have said about Israel having a right to exist and to defend itself.
And yet despite the war and opposition, Jews in Israel and elsewhere are still celebrating Hanukkah, Ainbinder said.
In this file photo, Rabbi Helene Ainbinder of Beit Chaverim Jewish community, speaks at the “Prayer Over the City” event at the St. George Tabernacle, St. George, Utah, Jan. 1, 2019 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
“Even though they’re at war, we’re celebrating Hanukkah,” she said. “During the COVID, we celebrated Hanukkah together. … You have to live your life. You can’t let evil make you so afraid to even walk out and live your life. That’s not freedom. You have to be able to live your life and keep our ways of life.”
While other communities in the country have been reportedly canceling Hanukkah celebrations for various reasons this year, the Chabad Jewish Center will be holding public Hanukkah celebrations in St. George and Cedar City this coming Sunday and Monday.
These celebrations provide an opportunity for the community to lend its support to the local Jewish community and stamp out the fear that antisemitism can bring, Cohen said. Jewish people need not hide who they are out of fear, he said.
“Someone may say, because they hate me because I’m being Jewish, let me hide my Jewishness,” Cohen said. “The truth is, when you do that, you perpetuate and you enable the oppressor even more if they’re trying to hurt you and hurt your feelings or hurt you physically or hurt you emotionally. By you hiding yourself away, it’s like giving permission for them to do it.”
The way to stop this is by standing strong and standing together with those around you and never regret being Jewish, but rather, publicly celebrate it, Cohen said.
“And that will change when we come together as a community in a Hanukkah celebration,” he said. “That’s a beautiful thing.”
Ainbinder added that people must do more to educate themselves and their children about the history of the Jewish people and the ongoing tensions and conflicts between Israel and its neighbors, and not limit their knowledge to media reports that can be tainted with misinformation and bias.
What is the significance of Hanukkah?
Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, commemorates events that occurred over 2,000 years ago, Cohen said. The Syrian-Greek Seleucid Empire attempted to abolish the Jewish faith and force its followers to adhere to Greek traditions. A small Jewish army, known as the Maccabees, rebelled against the Greek army and won.
“That was the first great miracle that took place,” Cohen previously told St. George News.
However, when they recaptured their temple, the Jews found it and the oils that had been prepared to light the menorah had been desecrated, Cohen said. It would take eight days to prepare new oil for the daily service.
They found one bottle of unspoiled oil, which they expected to last a single day but burned for eight, Cohen said.
“And that’s the message of Hanukkah,” he said. “That when we’re faced with negativity, when we’re faced with a challenge, when we’re faced with antisemitism – whatever we’re faced with – we have the ability to overcome that with positivity, by showing light, the same way our ancestors did it thousands of years ago. …
“When we light the menorah in public and get together or light the menorah in our own homes, it reminds us that we are we are fighting for light for peace, for truth for goodness and for kindness,” Cohen added.
Additional information about the Hanukkah holiday is available on this website.
This year’s celebration
This year’s menorah lighting in St. George is being held at Tech Ridge rather than the St. George Town Square.
“We’re very thankful for the Tech Ridge team for opening up their pavilion and the venue to allow us to have events over there,” Cohen said.
While the Hanukkah celebration will be held at the pavilion, the menorah itself will be set up near the cliff’s edge where it will overlook the St. George valley and can also be seen from below.
The St. George event will be held at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 10, at the Tech Ridge pavilion.
The Cedar City menorah lighting will be held at 5:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 11, at Nosso Auto, 39 S. Main St.
The event is free to the public and will feature a Grand Gelt Drop, music, donuts and Latkes, face painting, children’s crafts and more. Complimentary Hanukkah menorahs and candles will be distributed as well for participants to light at home.
How to support Israel
Cohen also highlighted the following ways people can support Israel being showing support for the local community:
People who wish to financially support members of the Israeli Defense Force and civilians can make donations through the Chabad Center’s website.
People the world over are being asked to support Israel by lighting a candle each Friday night as an example of light dispelling the darkness that has unfolded since the start of the war. More information can be found here.
Rabbi Mendy Cohen co-directs the Chabad Jewish Community Center of Southern Utah with his wife, Chaya Cohen. They are a part of the Chabad-Lubavitch, a branch of Hasidic Judaism known for its outreach and educational activities. The Chabad Center can be contacted at 435-619-6630 | Office@jewishsu.com.
Rabbi Helene Ainbinder oversees the Beit Chaverim Jewish Community of Greater Zion, a congregation that practices reformed Judaism. The community can be contacted at 435-652-9776 | email@example.com
Ed. Note: This post explores the views of local rabbis related to the significance of Hanukkah during a time of renewed war between Israeli and Hamas and is not meant to be a dive into the conflict, its history or recent developments as that is beyond the scope of this article and its intent.
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