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Jews Gather at The Lyceum in Alexandria to Usher in First Night of Hanukkah

Chabad of Alexandria-Arlington draws large crowd at kickoff of winter Jewish Holiday

Rabbi Mordechai Newman opens the ceremony. Standing at attention behind him are Assistant Police Chief Easton McDonald, Alexandria Councilwoman Alyia Gaskins, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. Photo credit Judith Fogel

ALEXANDRIA, VA-“The stunning increase in antisemitism we have seen around our country, the only way we battle that is with the power of ideas, the power of this, the power of community and showing that this is stronger than any hate.” -Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson

Amid an explosion of hatred that has rocked Jews in America, the Jewish community of Alexandria gathered at The Lyceum last night for the Chabad Lubavitch of Alexandria-Arlington grand Hanukkah (in Hebrew spelled Chanukah) celebration. The eight-day Jewish holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, began Thursday night, Dec. 7. Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson lit the Shamash of the giant Menorah. Each night, a candle is added until the final eighth night. The Shamash is the lighter candle that ignites all the other Hanukkah candles.

VIDEO: Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Newman leads the crowd in the outdoor Hanukkah candle lighting blessings at The Lyceum.

“It’s a challenging time for the Jewish people, with the war in Israel, and with American Jews facing a major rise in antisemitism,” said Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Newman.

“While in the past, prior to October 7, many Jews’ response to frightening developments of antisemitism may have been to hide their Jewishness,” he continued, “the post-October 7 Jewish communal response has bucked all precedents. Jews are choosing instead to celebrate their identity this Hanukkah with more confidence and resolve.”

Blustery winds and a big chill subsided by evening. Participants sipped on hot chocolate and mingled in the starry, windless night as they waited for the outdoor ceremony to begin. Wilson took to the stage to welcome the crowd, joking it was downright balmy, compared to past bitter cold Chabad Hanukkah menorah lightings. That was “back when I had more hair,” he quipped. But his mood quickly turned somber.

Mayor Justin Wilson climbs a ladder to light the Shamash, the center candle that lights the one candle on this first night. One for each night. Photo credit Judith Fogel

“It is so important that we gather, not just as a community to celebrate Hanukkah and the bonds we have as a community, but it is so important this year especially. We gather not just to celebrate Hanukkah but also as a message.

“It is sad that in the United States of America so many years after our founding, that we have to send that message,” he said. “The message of free practice of religion, safe practice of religion in the public realm is so important right now, particularly for our Jewish brothers and sisters.“

Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Newman, Mayor Justin Wilson greeting guests. Photo credit Judith Fogel

Rabbi Newman, director of Chabad Alexandria-Arlington, opened the ceremony. “On this cold night, as a special and timely message this year, as we are still shaken by the horrific events of Israel on October 7, for generations, whenever Jews came under attack, we relied on the two most powerful resources we have, our faith and our community.

“Our incredible community that spans the globe,” the rabbi emphasized.. “At times like these, we must lean on one another for support, strength and courage.”

A packed outdoor house sings along with the Hanukah candle lighting blessings and favorite holiday tunes. Photo via Justin Wilson’s Facebook page

Rabbi Newman thanked the Alexandria Police Department for keeping the assembled crowd safe, gesturing towards the police cruiser and the officers stationed at the entrance to the Lyceum parking lot, the site of outdoor ceremony. Assistant Police Chief Easton McDonald then rose to greet the audience and reassured the jittery Jewish community as they navigate these dark times.

“I want you to know that we are here in times of joy,” McDonald said, “but we are also here when you need us. And we will be here when you need us.”

An Alexandria police cruiser stands guard, a security staple at Jewish events and synagogues. Photo credit Judith Fogel

This year’s crowd was much larger than usual and included Councilmember Alyia Gaskins. The number of people served to counter the undercurrent of antisemitism that has gripped the Jewish community nationwide. Chabad handed out free menorahs, dreidels (spinning toys), and the two iconic foods of the holiday: hot latkes and jelly-filled donuts.

The crowd lines up for free hot chocolate, latkes, donuts, dreidels and menorahs. Photo credit Sarah Notis

The Festival of Lights concludes on Friday Dec. 15 at sunset, just as Jews usher in the Sabbath. There are outdoor candle lightings and Hanukkah events throughout the city all eight days and nights. On Sunday, Dec. 10 at 6:30 pm, Rabbi Steven Rein and Cantor Elisheva Dienstfrey of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria will light the fourth candle in Del Ray at Pat Miller Square. Sufganiot (donuts) will be served.

What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah, or the Festival of Rededication, celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE. Although it is a late addition to the Jewish liturgical calendar, the festival of Hanukkah has become a beloved and joyous holiday. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the length of the festival to a miraculous tiny amount of oil that burned for eight days. [SEE ALSO: A Taste of Scotland: Alexandria Whisky Tasting Brings Out Philanthropists and Spirit-Lovers]

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