When Rabbi Abraham Axelrud gathers his congregation for the annual menorah lighting at Congregation Beth Sholom in Babylon, it’s not just to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, but also to welcome the community of all faiths to learn more about Jewish beliefs and ceremonies.
“I think it is important that different religions learn about each other and that we religiously work together,” said Axelrud as he prepared for the event. “All religions share the same values. I’d like them to learn about us in the same way we want to learn about them.”
And so each year, he opens the menorah lighting ceremony – held on the first night of Hanukkah – to the public, inviting local leaders, religious leaders from other faiths and, most important, the community to join in the celebration.
Joining Axelrud in the ceremony Saturday night was Bishop William Murphy, who said he shares Axelrud’s desire to bring people of different faiths together. He said that instead of hiding our beliefs, we should proudly celebrate them.
“Public squares should reflect the diversity of our religions,” he said. “We should rejoice at the sight of a menorah or a manger.”
Speaking to a full house, Axelrud briefly explained the significance and history of the Hanukkah holiday as well as the correct way to light the menorah – beginning from the right and adding one candle to the left each night. When lighting the candles each night, the newest candle should be lit first.
The crowd joined in as he recited a series of Hanukkah blessings, prayers and songs, many in Hebrew. Following along using prayer packets, everyone got louder as each prayer or song became more recognizable, ending with a loud chorus of “The Dreidel Song.”
Everyone then headed outside for the lighting of the large menorah on the front lawn of the synagogue, located on Deer Park Avenue. The big finale was 6-year-old Enzo Koch’s favorite part.
“[We come] mostly because of my loving, adorable grandson,” said Victor Domingos, of West Babylon, about his grandson, Enzo. “He just adores it.”
Elaine and Ron Ferer, of North Babylon, members of the congregation for more than 35 years, attend the ceremony each year, gathering their children and grandchildren for the occasion.
“What I like about it is the whole community gets involved: priests, rabbis, everyone,” Elaine Ferer said. “It shows me there is peace.”