PHOTOS: Hanukkah Events in Jerusalem Focus on Finding Light, Hope, and Faith in Dark Times

After some welcoming words and the recitation of the blessings of Hanukkah, the first candle of the festival was lit.

The lighting of the first Hanukkah candle during the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023, in Jerusalem.
The lighting of the first Hanukkah candle during the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023, in Jerusalem. (photo: Marinella Bandini)

On the first evening of Hanukkah, Dec. 7, under a large tent in Jerusalem, an emerging community of Israeli Jews of all backgrounds called Kehilat Zion gathered together to dream again about Jerusalem as “a meeting place for all.”

People gather together on Dec. 7, 2023, in Jerusalem for the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah. Credit: Marinella Bandini

People gather together on Dec. 7, 2023, in Jerusalem for the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The event brought together dozens of Jewish believers and representatives from various faith traditions, including Father Benedetto Di Bitonto, head of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Jerusalem. 

Attendees sing during the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Attendees sing during the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

After some welcoming words and the recitation of the blessings of Hanukkah, the first candle of the festival was lit. This was followed by a joyful moment of singing led by well-known Jewish singer Noa, who wrote of the experience on her Facebook page: “Together we found a way, through the sorrow, to light a candle in the dark tent of the soul.”

Israeli singer Noa (Achinoam Nini) attended the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Israeli singer Noa (Achinoam Nini) attended the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The founder and leader of Kehilat Zion is Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. She told CNA that “Jews have always — even in the biggest darkness — lit a light in the world: a light of hope, a light of faith, a light of brotherhood.”

She continued: “In this year, so full of darkness, sadness, and brokenness, and so much worry for the people who are hostages in Gaza, we gathered together to light the first light with people from all faiths. We stand together and send our light, our support and prayers, to the hostages in Gaza. We send them through the tunnels, light, and send the world, through every prayer, the hope that we will stand alongside the truth, the kindness, and the good.”

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, founder and leader of Kehilat Zion, speaks during the interfaith event organized by the community on the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 7, 2023, in Jerusalem. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, founder and leader of Kehilat Zion, speaks during the interfaith event organized by the community on the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 7, 2023, in Jerusalem. Credit: Marinella Bandini

One participant, Noam Dan, told CNA that she almost didn’t come. 

“At first, I thought I’m not going to celebrate, and I’m not going to light candles. I didn’t feel in the mood to celebrate,” she said. Dan lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children, but her family is originally from kibbutz Nir Oz, close to the Gaza Strip, one of those most affected by the Hamas massacres Oct. 7. Five members of her family disappeared that day. 

“It took us two weeks to find out that two of them — my aunt Carmela, 80, and her granddaughter Noya, 13 — had been murdered,” she said. The other three were kidnapped to Gaza: Erez, 11, and Sahar, 16, were freed Nov. 27, while their father, Ofer Kalderon, 53, is still there and wounded. That, she said, makes this Hanukkah very different from others. 

“I changed my mind and decided to join the celebrations. I decided this is the time to choose life, to show my kids… to choose life and to choose light, also for all the hostages who cannot see the light while they’re prisoners,” she said.

Noam Dan holds a candle during an interfaith gathering on the first evening of Hanukkah, Dec. 7, 2023. Her family is originally from kibbutz Nir Oz, close to the Gaza Strip, where she lost two family members and three others were kidnapped during Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Noam Dan holds a candle during an interfaith gathering on the first evening of Hanukkah, Dec. 7, 2023. Her family is originally from kibbutz Nir Oz, close to the Gaza Strip, where she lost two family members and three others were kidnapped during Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The term Hanukkah means “dedication” or “inauguration.” The eight-day-and-night festival commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the Hebrew year 3622 (165 B.C.) after the Maccabees’ victory over the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus had prohibited Jewish practices and desecrated the Temple by sacrificing to pagan gods.

Hanukkah was established by Judah Maccabee to celebrate this event:

“Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the 25th day of the month of Chislev” (1 Mc 4:36–59).

The first Hanukkah candle is lit on the special nine-branched candelabrum that is lit during the Hanukkah feast, which began this year on the evening of Dec. 7, 2023, two months after the outbreak of Israel's war with Hamas. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The first Hanukkah candle is lit on the special nine-branched candelabrum that is lit during the Hanukkah feast, which began this year on the evening of Dec. 7, 2023, two months after the outbreak of Israel's war with Hamas. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Hanukkah is also known as the “Festival of Lights” because each night of the celebration, a candle is lit until all shine on the special nine-branched candelabrum called the “hanukkiah” (eight branches plus the central one — the “servant,” from which all the others are lit). 

Religious leaders and family members of some Israeli hostages still in Gaza light some Hanukkah candles during the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023. With this gesture they hope that the light of Hanukkah will reach and enlighten the hostages and they will soon be able to return. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Religious leaders and family members of some Israeli hostages still in Gaza light some Hanukkah candles during the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023. With this gesture they hope that the light of Hanukkah will reach and enlighten the hostages and they will soon be able to return. Credit: Marinella Bandini

According to tradition, at the time of the purification of the Temple, only one vial of uncontaminated oil was found to light the lamp (menorah). The quantity was sufficient for only one day, yet the oil miraculously fueled the lamp for eight consecutive days.

Father Di Bitonto, who is an expert in Judaism, told CNA that Hanukkah is a biblical feast even though “it does not appear in the canon of the Hebrew Bible.”

Father Benedetto Di Bitonto, head of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Jerusalem, attended the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Father Benedetto Di Bitonto, head of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Jerusalem, attended the interfaith event organized by the Kehilat Zion on the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

“The narrative is instead found in the First Book of Maccabees in the Christian Bible,” he explained. Paradoxically, “we Christians preserve the biblical text of the feast, while Jews celebrate the narrative of the feast, even though they don’t have it in their sacred text.”

Some Hanukkah lights displayed in the streets of the Jewish Quarter, inside typical small boxes, in Jerusalem's Old City on Dec 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Some Hanukkah lights displayed in the streets of the Jewish Quarter, inside typical small boxes, in Jerusalem's Old City on Dec 7, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Typically, Jews display candlesticks behind windows or on windowsills, making them visible from the streets, or directly along the streets on the left side of the front door. The festival carries a joyful significance — both for what it commemorates and the tradition of giving gifts to children. 

Some Hanukkah lights inside a typical small box along the streets of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City on Dec 12, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Some Hanukkah lights inside a typical small box along the streets of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City on Dec 12, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini

This year, however, many do not feel like celebrating fully due to the ongoing war. 

Even in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the lights are fewer than usual. The municipality has arranged a special setup in front of Jaffa Gate, one of the main entry points to the Old City. In the plaza beneath the walls, the word “JERUSALEM,” composed of nine letters, has become a large hanukkiah/menorah.

The municipality of Jerusalem has arranged a special setup in front of Jaffa Gate, one of the main entry points to the Old City. In the plaza beneath the walls, the word “JERUSALEM,” composed of nine letters, has become a large hanukkiah. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The municipality of Jerusalem has arranged a special setup in front of Jaffa Gate, one of the main entry points to the Old City. In the plaza beneath the walls, the word “JERUSALEM,” composed of nine letters, has become a large hanukkiah. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The organization Rabbis for Human Rights, a rabbinic organization in Israel explicitly dedicated to human rights, has organized a few interfaith Hanukkah events, coinciding with Human Rights Day.

In Jerusalem, on Dec. 12, an event was hosted by the Church of Scotland at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church, where rabbis expressed the desire for peace, hope, and justice — values shared by all present, representing various faiths.

People gathered together on Dec. 12, 2023, in Jerusalem for the interfaith event organized by the Rabbis for Human Rights organization for Hanukkah. The event was hosted by the Church of Scotland at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church. Credit: Marinella Bandini

People gathered together on Dec. 12, 2023, in Jerusalem for the interfaith event organized by the Rabbis for Human Rights organization for Hanukkah. The event was hosted by the Church of Scotland at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church. Credit: Marinella Bandini

In the name of these values, the Hanukkah candles were lit. 

“That was our first thought after Oct. 7,” Rabbi Dana Sharon, head of Rabbis Network for Human Rights, told CNA. “That we have to make religion a means of gathering people and bringing them closer together and to increase compassion, peace-seeking, and understanding of one another rather than a weapon. Religions have been weaponized in this part of the world for so long, and we — all religions — have lost core values completely to radical voices, and that needs to stop.”

The lighting of Hanukkah candles, during the interfaith event organized on Dec. 12, 2023, in Jerusalem by the Rabbis for Human Rights organization for Hanukkah. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The lighting of Hanukkah candles, during the interfaith event organized on Dec. 12, 2023, in Jerusalem by the Rabbis for Human Rights organization for Hanukkah. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Father Di Bitonto pointed out that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah.

“We read about it in the Gospel of John, where it is recounted that it was winter, and Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem for the dedication festival of the Temple (Jn 10:22),” he said. “As Christians, we have not maintained this festival … and there is no connection with Christmas, as some may think… but the theme of light somewhat brings these two celebrations closer.” 

A religious Jew prays in front of Hanukkah candles during the lighting of Hanukkah candles on Dec. 9, 2023, in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Credit: Marinella Bandini

A religious Jew prays in front of Hanukkah candles during the lighting of Hanukkah candles on Dec. 9, 2023, in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Although the lights of these two festivals are distinct, being celebrated around the same time of the year, they, in a way, shine together. 

“These are the lights we’re all looking for,” Rabbi Sharon said. “And we’re seeking to be that light, that beacon, that is reminding people that though things look dark, light is within us, especially when we are together, when we work together for a better reality, when we are not against each other.”

This year, Hanukkah takes place from nightfall Dec. 7 to nightfall Dec. 15.

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