Matt Fox, a former president at Temple Beth Emeth in...

Matt Fox, a former president at Temple Beth Emeth in Mount Sinai, has placed in front of his Holtsville house a giant menorah that he helped build years ago. Credit: John Roca

More than 2,000 years ago, a small group of Jews waged a battle in the land now known as Israel against a force dedicated to their destruction.

The story of Hanukkah, and of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, resonates more for many in the community on Long Island this year as they struggle to balance a holiday rooted in celebration with the heartache of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and the anguish of the subsequent rise in antisemitism in the United States.

Roy Harel, a senior at Stony Brook University who was born in Israel and lives in Port Jefferson, said he's drawing strength from the past in advance of Hanukkah, which begins at sundown on Thursday.

"We're facing symbolically similar threats to our community and to our worldwide family," said Harel, who is Jewish and a student leader at Stony Brook Hillel. "During this year's Hanukkah, I feel personally, a lot of emphasis is going to be on 'We survived that threat oh so long ago … And just like we survived that, we're going to survive and thrive after this ongoing threat to our livelihoods.'"

Hanukkah events on Long Island

While hearts may be heavy, festivities on Long Island will also offer lighter-hearted merriment during the nights. Here's a list of Hanukkah events on Long Island each of the holiday's eight nights.

More than 1,200 Jews, predominantly civilians, were killed by Hamas during a surprise attack two months ago, according to Israeli officials. During the ensuing war in Gaza, more than 16,200 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

"The word 'Hanukkah,' in fact, means dedication," said Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum of Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh. "Our ancestors understood the importance of sovereignty and independence to practice their faith and live as Jews, especially as they continued to be a minority people. It is the same battle which rages today, although the adversary has changed. This history reminds me this year that what we are experiencing and what is happening in Israel is not new. And that context brings me comfort."

By most estimates calculated by Jewish advocacy groups, there are more than 300,000 Jews living on Long Island, including about 19% of Nassau's population and roughly 8% of Suffolk's.

Revamped Hanukkah ceremonies this year

Across the region, synagogues Thursday will light the Hanukkah menorah, a multibranched candelabra in which one candle is lit during each of the holiday's eight nights.

But many temples, including Temple B'nai Torah, have revamped their ceremony this year by lighting a candle for each of the estimated 138 hostages that are believed to still be in captivity in Gaza. The hostages include Omer Neutra, a Plainview native who joined the Israeli army after graduating from The Schechter School of Long Island.

Rabbi Joel Levenson of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset said there's no doubt this year's candle lighting ceremony will be different from years past.

"We need to shine a light on the hostages held by Hamas," Levenson said. "We have to remember that lighting candles is proof that even in the darkest of times, our ancestors believed in their power to change reality, by lighting a small light and another one, and another, who joined together to create a unified, single brighter light."

Rabbi Anchelle Perl of the Chabad of Mineola said the menorah represents freedom from tyranny and oppression, and the ability for all people to express their faith as they see fit.

"When confronted with hatred, the public menorah is more important than ever," said Perl, who will host a ceremony on the steps of NYU Langone Hospital in Mineola. "We can have no better response to the negativity we encounter than to proudly gather together, in even greater numbers than before, and celebrate the light of the menorah in public."

A surge in antisemitic incidents

Antisemitic incidents were on the rise before the start of the Israel-Hamas war, and have increased significantly in the weeks since Oct. 7.

Preliminary data from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism indicates that reported incidents of harassment, vandalism and assaults against Jews nationwide increased nearly 400% since the Hamas attack compared to the same period last year.

Those incidents, including several on Long Island, have left some Jewish families questioning whether it's safe to display a menorah in their window.

Others, however, are making their displays even more prominent. 

On Wednesday, Matt Fox put on his front lawn in Holtsville an 8-foot wooden menorah he helped build years ago while serving as president at Temple Beth Emeth in Mount Sinai.

"Can we allow rabid antisemitism to send us into hiding?" Fox asked. "I will not hide and I want to show other people that it's OK to display this and maybe others will stand with me."

Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Makom NY in Bethpage said that between the tragedy of Oct. 7 and the fear of antisemitism, many Jews may not be in a celebrating mood this Hanukkah. 

"But for Jews in general, we are taught that we don't pass by an opportunity to celebrate," Bravo said. "Even when you're in mourning, you pause for us to celebrate the Sabbath. … So in that guise, it's important that Hanukkah be celebrated. I think many communities — certainly ours — are going to focus on adding more light into this world that is very dark."

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