When the sun sets Wednesday, Jewish people will start to light candles in the darkness, a small tangible symbol of faith and hope for a culture that stretches back thousands of years. Hanukkah will begin.
Rabbi Nosson Meretsky, director of Chabad of Penn State, said the eight-day holiday has many themes.
“One is the victory of the few over the many and of light over darkness,” he said.
Historically, it is a commemoration of the victory of a small band of Jews called the Maccabees over the much larger Syrian-Greek army of Antiochus.
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“The Maccabees reclaimed and rededicated the temple,” said Aaron Kaufman, executive director of Penn State Hillel. “Then there was the miracle of Hanukkah. They only had enough oil to burn for one day.”
Reconsecrating the Second Temple on Temple Mount in Jerusalem could not be done so quickly. According to Jewish tradition, the oil lasted eight days, restoring the holy site.
“This is a theme we see throughout our history. The lesson is when we encounter darkness, we need to add light,” said Meretsky.
The light of Hanukkah, in the form of the eight candles of the menorah, also serves an important cultural role for Jews in the New World.
“The celebration of Hanukkah in America is unique in the Jewish world,” said Kaufman. In the calendar of holidays, it is not a major player, dwarfed by Passover, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. “It’s a minor holiday but it has taken on a very important cultural significance in America due to its proximity to Christmas. It is a way for Jewish children to feel a sense of home and pride.”
The menorah has become more than the branch that holds the candles. It has taken on the symbol of the season. For the State College and Penn State Jewish communities, the public lighting of a large menorah gives a little competition for Christmas trees. On Monday, the sixth night of the celebration, the 9-foot tall menorah will be lit at Old Main at 5 p.m. The event has been moved on campus after Beta Sigma Beta, a predominantly Jewish fraternity, was targeted with anti-Semitic vandalism earlier in November. The president of Beta Sigma Beta will light the first candle, with other fraternity presidents lighting after him, said Meretsky.
“In light of recent events, we are making the menorah lighting even more visible and out in the open,” he said.
Kaufman called the move “a great statement in light of what happened,” and credited Penn State for being strong in support of Jewish students and culture.
But why so late in the celebration? Why not Wednesday as the festivities begin?
“Being the sixth night also allows us to honor more leaders with lighting the menorah. Mayor Elizabeth Goreham will also be in attendance to give welcoming remarks,” said Meretsky.
The ceremony will be followed by live music by the Pittsburgh Simcha Orchestra, hot latkes (a traditional potato pancake fried to commemorate the miraculous oil), chocolate coins called Hanukkah gelt, crafts for kids, free menorah kits (with menorahs and candles), and a raffle for a trip to Israel and $1,000.