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Hanukkah returns at time of unease for American Jews

New York Governor Kathy Hochul delivers remarks at "We Stand With Israel" community rally in Albany.
Dave Lucas
New York Governor Kathy Hochul delivers remarks at "We Stand With Israel" community rally held in October 2023 in Albany.

The last few months have been trying times for the Jewish community following the Hamas attack on Israel and rising anti-Semitism across the United States. But life and celebration go on at local congregations as Hanukkah begins. 

Capital Region Jews are preparing to begin celebrating Hanukkah, the eight-day "festival of lights," marked with nightly menorah lightings, special prayers and fried foods.

Rabbi Zalman Simon is with Bethlehem Chabad. "Since October 7, the Jewish community is definitely reeling. There are there are a local, local community members who have had a sibling that was killed in the in the atrocities, there have been people affected in so many ways. And this absolutely has affected our community. And there's a sense of fear, and sense of feeling alone. So I'm encouraging our community and really everyone to come and to show support. And to really be positive, and try pushing away the evil with a positive interaction with positive good deed by light. And that's the way, the best way we can fight darkness," Simon said.

Ami Monson is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park. "The initial reaction is to be hesitant to celebrate and to continue with the celebrations in light of what's going on. But I think that's counterproductive. I think the idea is that we need to continue to live life and celebrate the holiday and not let those terrorists and people who have a lot of anger and hatred towards the Jewish people and those in Israel, let them win. We need to light our candelabras and celebrate and sang and play dreidel. We as a synagogue are actually hosting a special Hanukkah concert through the Jewish Federation in Northeastern New York this Saturday night. Throughout Hanukkah, the individual congregants are going to be lighting candles in their houses and celebrating Hanukkah and I will be in before synagogue on Friday night before services, we'll be lighting candles,” said Monson.

Rabbi Matt Cutler leads Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady. “If there was a time that the Jewish people in our area need Hanukkah, this would be it. We are having a community dinner tomorrow night, where we're going to have the congregation come to sing Hanukkah songs to light the menorah to the traditional Hanukkah food of latkes with applesauce or sour cream as your preference. And we say we are going to come together as Jews," Cutler said. 

Rabbi Mordechai Rubin runs the Colonie Chabad Jewish Center. He says Hanukkah candles represent the power of light and good over darkness and evil. "Everyone's shooken up to the core what happened on October 7th. And there's incredible sense of unity that's going on," said Rubin. "And although we have many different Hanukkah celebrations, and I urge everyone to go out and celebrate publicly, it's important to be, at this time, as Jewish as you ever have been, constitute as you ever have been. A neighbor, a friendly neighbor. But for Jews to get out in public, there are beautiful menorah celebrations across the entire Capital District."

Rubin will officiate at one of the region's larger services. “At 5, we'll be joining the town supervisor of Colonie, Mr. Crummey, which is again a sign of good neighbors, and he will like the seervant candle, the shamash and a beautiful Hanukkah celebration at the center of Colonie Center Mall, which is called Center Court. If you're familiar with Colonie Center, it's right where the big elevator, the glass elevator is on the bottom floor. And there's no admission — free for the public — anybody can come,” said Rubin. 

Rubin says there will be security at all area events. Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany is holding in-person services that will also be livestreamed at 6:30 p.m.

Police Chief Eric Hawkins says local law enforcement agencies are on alert. "Over the last month or so, it may be even extending past the month, we've had some increased presence that all of our faith based institutions in the city, particularly our Jewish facilities, and so that that'll continue," Hawkins said. 

Cutler says the element of fear is very real and has prompted some congregants to stay away. “They're worried about, you know, the lone wolf, who is going to take the opportunity to express his hatred when we're, we're in synagogue, doing Jewish. And so we're encouraging people to show up, and many, many people are. In our congregation, we have like over 150 signed up. I know that the Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, over 350 people signed up, to come together and to say we're proud in this regards. Now, we're also celebrating on Sunday, Hanukkah, with a celebration in Downtown Schenectady. As we've done, this will be the third annual Hanukkah on Jay Street," said Cutler. 

The parade steps off at 2:30 Sunday in front of Schenectady City Hall.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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