A group of Pittsburgh police officers who responded to the deadly October synagogue shooting, which claimed the lives of 11 worshippers and injured six others, attended the ceremonial lighting of a towering menorah outside a Roslyn synagogue Sunday on the first night of Hanukkah.
Hundreds of celebrants hailed the officers — guests of the Chabad of Roslyn — as heroes representing the triumph of the human spirit.
Rabbi Yaakov Reiter, the synagogue's associate rabbi and program director, said he reached out to his counterpart at a Pittsburgh Chabad to invite the police officers. The synagogue wanted to pay tribute to the victims and the officers whose bravery that day at the Tree of Life synagogue likely saved the lives of many others. Those who traveled from Pittsburgh were picked by their commander and wore dress blues.
“Hanukkah represents the overpowering of light over darkness, good over evil,” Reiter said. “Being that we had just experienced this terrible, horrific, anti-Semitic shooting in Pittsburgh, which was the epitome of evil, so if we can honor these officers at the lighting of the menorah, then we can show the world that evil will not prevail.”
The “Festival of Lights” carries with it themes of hope, miracles, religious freedom and thanksgiving for Jews across Long Island and around the world. The eight-day Jewish holiday commemorates what the faithful consider a miracle that occurred more than 2,000 years ago in a sacred temple, where the oil that was supposed to last only a day burned for eight.
The half-dozen officers received citations from Nassau County for their bravery. County Executive Laura Curran, who helped light the menorah — said to be the tallest on Long Island at some 35 feet in the sky — called the officers' presence "incredibly meaningful."
Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Bailey, who smiled widely as he posed for pictures and held hands and danced in a circle with congregants and his fellow officers, said he was experiencing a pair of firsts: visiting New York and attending a menorah lighting.
"It's a great honor," Bailey said. "Everyone's been so nice."
Frank Peck, 60, of Bellmore, said he nicknamed the cops "the Maccabees," referring to a group of celebrated Jewish rebel warriors. "These are the real heroes right here tonight."
Children mobbed the officers for photos. Men shook their hands. Women offered hugs and kisses on the cheek. Most in the crowd feasted on sufganiyot, the round jelly doughnuts dusted with powered sugar that are traditionally eaten on Hanukkah.
Leslie Khafif, of Old Westbury, brought her children Emma and Theo, both 14, and Sammie, 12, to the lighting, which the family attends every year.
"They're true heroes," said Khafif, 54. "Kids need to really see firsthand."
Earlier Sunday, a multigenerational gathering of Jews assembled at the Kings Park Jewish Center to light candles and share bowls of apple sauce, plates of potato pancakes, doughnuts and gelt, the gold foiled-chocolates encased in mesh bags.
The morning rain scuttled plans for a more elaborate event scheduled outside Kings Park Plaza to light two 6-foot-tall menorahs.
Rabbi Abe Rabinovich told a crowd at the congregation, which dates to 1911, "when we celebrate by helping others, miracles come our way, too."
Rabinovich, who has previously spoken about the shooting in Pittsburgh, said Sunday that the key to fighting hatred is "by doing more acts of kindness."
Phil Horowitz, a cantor with the Kings Park synagogue, led the menorah lighting with his 11-year-old son, Russell. A regular there, the elder Horowitz said with wry sarcasm that his "quiet and shy" reputation has also gotten him gigs leading menorah lightings at about a dozen cruise ship excursions.
Toby Everett, a co-president of King Park Jewish Center and a congregant there for 47 years, said, "Kings Park is a town where people care about each other, and it's so nice when we all can come together, especially in the world we're living in."
Everett said that while the congregation skews older, "all we can do is try, we don't want to just fade away."