WILDWOOD – When Jews light their Hanukkah menorah the evening of Dec. 2, they'll be celebrating religious freedom, commemorating the deliverance of the Jewish people from oppression by the Syrian Greeks.
While the "Festival of Lights" is similar to the Christian Christmas holiday with its lights, gifts and food traditions, the Jewish holiday hopes to remind others there are still people fighting for religious freedoms and of "bringing light to others that are still in need and live in darkness."
According to Rabbi Ron Isaacs of the Beth Judah Synagogue in Wildwood, Cape May County's only temple, "even though both Christmas and Hanukkah have the lights, gifts, and food celebrations, Hanukkah has a different story and different values than Christmas.
“There are many people today in the U.S. and all over the world that are still enslaved, and at Hanukkah, some Jewish families choose to donate to causes that work to help those who are yet to have light in their homes and in their world.
"The sole purpose of the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah is to publicize the miracle of a small group of fighters defeating the superior Syrian Greek army," he added. "It’s all about religious freedom and helping bring light to others that are still in need and live in darkness."
Isaacs, who has been a part-time rabbi at the Wildwood temple for three-and-one-half years after retiring from a Bridgewater temple after 40 years of service, said the story of Hanukkah is about a miracle that took place during the rededication of a temple some 2,000 years ago.
"The story is that there was only enough oil for one day, but it burned for eight days," Isaacs said. "In Judaism, we don't rely on saints or miracles like Christians. We believe the only one who can perform a miracle is God. The fact that the oil burned for eight days instead of one is considered a symbol of this small group of warriors who won a battle against a much bigger enemy. It celebrates the miracle of victory."
Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the eight-day holiday. Each night, a candle or oil-based light is lit. The number of lights lit is increased by one each night.
Presents are often exchanged, special oily foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts are eaten, and playing with the dreidel, a four-sided top, with songs can occur.
"I'm not sure when gift-giving became part of the celebration," Isaacs said, "and it's not required, but like many cultures and religions; customs and traditions are shared or adopted."
Keeping the Jewish tradition alive can be challenging with the commercialism of Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Isaacs said religious education when children are young can help keep the Jewish tradition alive.
"Teaching one’s children is a religious commandment in the Jewish family, and religious education is a high priority," Isaacs said. "So as a rabbi, I have always encouraged my congregants to begin the lessons of Hanukkah at a very young age.
"To that end, while serving as a congregational rabbi, I would visit the Jewish pre-school in my temple for all Jewish holidays," he noted. "Parents, too, would be invited and we sing, play, light the Hanukkiah (the menorah), tell the Hanukkah story and begin at a very young age to appreciate the holiday of Hanukkah."
Many congregations have a large family Hanukkah program with food, song, entertainment and the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah.
"As Jewish kids grow older, they will obviously come into contact with families that do celebrate Christmas, and of course they will see Christmas lights all over town streets, in stores and Santa Claus will be waiting for visitors," he said.
"As kids grow older, we do point out in their religious education the differences between Hanukkah and Christmas, and their similarities," Isaacs added. "I have found that in families that have a strong Jewish identity and make holiday time fun and spiritual, kids will be happy to celebrate their holiday of Hanukkah while appreciating the holiday of Christmas and the holidays of other faiths in the winter months."
With all that being said, Isaacs acknowledged there are interfaith families that have chosen to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. "Some have compromised and instead of a Christmas tree, display a so-called Hanukkah bush," he said. "These bushes are generally discouraged by most rabbis, but more liberal ones are likely not to object.
"Today it seems that the Christmas tree has often become a secular symbol of the American commercial Christmas holiday, and not the birth of Jesus," the rabbi pointed out. "There are Jewish families that feel that they can have a tree in the house without subscribing to the Christian element of the holiday," he noted.
Isaacs said his time at the Wildwood synagogue has "been a dream come true," with numerous ecumenical and faith-based events, especially during the summer season. Since joining the Wildwood congregation, he has knocked off at least one "bucket list" item.
"I always wanted to light a large menorah and was able to do that last year in Cape May," Isaacs said about the event that will take place on the Washington Street Mall.
"This year we're having latkes and music as part of our community outreach," he said.
The lighting will take place at 6 p.m. Dec. 8.
"Hanukkah is often the most favorite holiday in the Jewish faith," the rabbi said, "because of the lights, singing songs, eating special foods. It's easy to do. But it's about the little guy winning because of his faith. If you believe, if you have faith and spirit, that's what it's all about."
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