For local leaders in the Jewish community, Hanukkah couldn’t come at a better time.

The celebratory eight-day festival of lights, symbolized by the candles of the menorah, arrives Sunday night amid a darkening climate of anti-Semitism in America.

“There’s no question that we’re putting our menorahs out,” says Rabbi Ita Paskind of Norwalk’s Congregation Beth El. “In fact, we are doubling down being out and proud about putting our religion on display.”

At the same time, there is no denying that some families are being pulled in opposing directions this holiday season, five weeks since the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

On the one hand, some families feel the practical need to be circumspect and conscientious about safety, with anti-Semitic hate crimes on the rise. On the other hand, families feel the spiritual need to be conspicuous about a Jewish tradition such as Hanukkah, which calls for celebrations to be public.

“I have been getting a lot of calls from people who are worried, asking ‘Is there a danger?’” says Andy Friedland, associate director of the Connecticut chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. “But there is something to be said about saying ‘We won’t go into hiding, and we will be proud of who we are.’”

At stake is how free families feel they can be at a time in America when more people are being targeted for living their lives as themselves.

The slaying of 11 people and wounding of seven others at the Tree of Life synagogue in October by a gunman who told police “All these Jews need to die,” punctuated an alarming set of recent statics about the rise of hate crimes in America.

An annual FBI report in November showed a 37 percent spike in crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2017, as part of an overall 17 percent jump in hate crimes, for example.

The ADL followed that report with a study documenting a rise in anti-immigrant extremism in America over the last decade, and a correlating rise in anti-Semitism.

Locally, swastikas have caused consternation in Wilton and Ridgefield. And in Woodbridge, educators are cracking down on what Jewish students called a climate of anti-Semitism at Amity High School.

In New Milford, Matthew Abel says it’s hard to speak for every Jewish family’s reaction to the rise of hate, except to say that it is not making families reluctant to put a menorah in the window.

“Just because we are Jews and there is this rise of anti-Semitism and hate crimes doesn’t mean we are more fearful of who we are,” said Abel, who attends Temple Sholom. “We don’t forget what happened to us in the past, and we won’t sit by and let some extremist scare us into hiding.”

Holiday of defiance

As a holiday, Hanukkah is not as important on the Jewish calendar as the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And on the popular culture level, Hanukkah is usually associated with the dreidel spinning toy, or traditional treats such as potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts.

But the holiday is rooted in deeper traditions of resilience and deliverance. It dates 2,000 years ago, when Jewish patriots liberated the temple in Jerusalem from oppressors, and a menorah stayed lit for eight days on only one day’s supply of oil.

In that spirit, says Rabbi Ari Rosenberg of New Milford’s Temple Sholom, Hanukkah has always been a holiday of defiance.

“From its earliest inception over 2,000 years ago, when the Maccabees fought the Hellenists who had desecrated our holy Temple, Hanukkah has been a holiday to celebrate Jewish pride,” Rosenberg said. “We are all grieving in the aftermath of the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue, but we honor the memory of the eleven good people who perished there when we proudly observe traditions as they would.”

Rabbi Shlame Landa of Chabad of Fairfield agrees.

“Hanukkah is all about light: we kindle the light of the menorah because a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness,” said Landa. “Of course we have to take all safety precautions and take security seriously, but at the same time we cannot go into hiding - it is especially important for young people to see this.”

Chabad of Fairfield is among the scores of Jewish organizations and houses of worship here, across the United States and in 100 countries throughout the world that will host public Hanukkah events, starting at sundown on Sunday.

In Danbury, the United Jewish Center will mark the first night of Hanukkah with an outdoor menorah lighting and a celebration.

“The light represents the hope and faith and the resiliency of the Jewish people in dark times, which is very fitting for what is going on in this country,” said Rabbi Stefan Tiwy.

He added that the goal was to find a balance between taking extra security precautions and preserving the openness of the holiday.

At Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich, Rabbi Yossi Deren agreed that the public menorah lighting dimension of the holiday was important to preserve, noting that before a movement to elevate Hanukkah’s profile in the 1970s the 1980s, it was little known.

“What happened was every Jewish man, woman and child could look up in their city or their small town and see the shining light of the menorah brightening the dark winter night, literally,” Deren said. “Figuratively, what that did was spread the message of Hanukkah about the power of light to dispel the darkness.”

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