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For Jews, Hanukkah is timely spiritual pick-me-up after Pittsburgh

Rabbi Anchelle Perl of the Chabad of Mineola said Jews shouldn't allow violence and terror to overwhelm their consciousness.

Teenage members of The Chai Center in Dix

Teenage members of The Chai Center in Dix Hills wrap Hanukkah presents to be donated to charity.  Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman

A central tenet of Hanukkah — that light shall overcome darkness — will have additional significance for Jews across Long Island as they celebrate the first night of the holiday on Sunday, many still grieving after the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 worshippers dead.

The Oct. 27 shooting inside the Tree of Life synagogue in the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill has cast a long shadow over the joyous Hanukkah celebration this year, according to Long Island religious leaders.

Many Jews, they say, feel agony and despair at the lives senselessly extinguished by a gunman intent on targeting Jews during the Shabbat morning prayers. Others suddenly feel unsafe inside their houses of worship, and wonder if it could happen here next. 

Area rabbis also note that the eight-day Festival of Lights comes at an opportune moment, when members of the Jewish community need a spiritual pick-me-up and a reminder of the holiday's uplifting meaning. 

"The message of Hanukkah is that good is stronger than evil," said Rabbi Shalom Paltiel of the Chabad of Port Washington. "And the best way to honor the 11 souls slain in Pittsburgh is to celebrate that message; that light will overcome darkness."

The Chabad, which will host an outdoor menorah lighting Sunday — one of Long Island's largest Hanukkah celebrations — is among several synagogues across the region honoring the 11 Jewish victims of the shooting, along with the six others injured, including four responding police officers.

The Chabad of Merrick-Bellmore-Wantagh will pay tribute to the victims Sunday by lighting a 12-foot menorah, frying up hundreds of potato latkes and showering parade-goers with 'gelt' — chocolate coins distributed to Jewish children throughout the holiday.

Rabbi Anchelle Perl of the Chabad of Mineola will honor the memories of the Pittsburgh victims during the 28th annual Hanukkah telethon on Sunday, Dec. 9.   For a list of viewing channels or to watch live online, go to chanukahtelethon.com. 

And while Jews traditionally light nine branches on the menorah during Hanukkah, commemorating the victory of the Maccabees over their Syrian oppressors and the miracle of one day's supply of oil lasting eight days, Perl said 11 candles will be lit during the telethon, honoring each of the dead.

"We must add more light to make up for the loss of light that was taken out in Pittsburgh," he said. 

But Perl, a radio host and one of Long Island's most visible rabbis, said Jews must avoid falling into the trap of self-pity, allowing the violence and terror to overwhelm their consciousness.

"The Jewish community has always faced tragedy and over generations they've moved forward," Perl said. "So the message is, 'we will overcome the darkness.' "

But with the ever-looming threat of more acts of mass violence, many Long Island religious institutions are taking steps to harden their security this holiday season with armed guards, reinforced steel doors and shatterproof windows. 

In October, only days after the Pittsburgh shooting, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced $2.1 million in grants to Jewish schools and synagogues across Long Island. Many of those security protocols will get their first major test during the Hanukkah festivities.

The Chai Center in Dix Hills used a $50,000 state grant, and $30,000 in additional in-house funding, to install 17 high-resolution cameras on the synagogue's exterior; Kevlar windows capable of stopping projectiles traveling up to 150 mph; and three armed guards. The center is also planning to install a double door system, common in high-end jewelry stores, and additional fencing to shield a playground from public view.

"We don't want to live in a police state but we need to feel protected," said Rabbi Yakov Saacks. "We need to have common sense but we can't live in fear."

As the orthodox synagogue prepares to host up to 300 families for Hanukkah, Saacks remains conflicted with the safety precautions, balancing the need to create a warm and welcoming environment with one where congregants feel safe and protected.

"It saddens me that all this is necessary. One of the basic tenets of our country is freedom of religion but it's not all that free," Saacks said, his voice trailing off for a moment. "I feel compelled to do it. That's what bothers me."

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