Jewish communities prepare for Hanukkah events in the specter of rising antisemitism, war in Israel

Organizers say there is more enthusiasm and desire for candle-lighting and other holiday events this year, alongside greater security concerns

As American Jewish communities prepare for Hanukkah, which starts Thursday at sundown, Jewish leaders note the significance of the Festival of Lights during a dark time — two months after Hamas’ deadly rampage in Israel and amid a global rise in antisemitism to levels not seen in at least a generation. Community leaders, who are ramping up security measures, told eJewishPhilanthropy that many will use Hanukkah festivities as a way to show the world that, despite those precautions, they are not afraid. 

“This time has certainly been difficult for Jews around the world, and this is a great opportunity to showcase the resilience of the Jewish people in the same way that the story of Hanukkah does,” Max Moline, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s director of community engagement, told eJP.

“We are responding to tragedy and death with love and joy,” Moline said, noting that Philadelphia’s federation has five different events planned throughout the week across the area, “all designed to bring people together, showcase the strength of the community and really give people the opportunity to connect; light the candles, eat food, sing songs and just be together.”

Moline said that people have generally been eager to attend events, especially once they are made aware that the federation is taking unprecedented security measures. “The responses I’ve heard to putting events on the calendar have been so much more excited than before Oct. 7. People are grateful and eager to attend events,” Moline said.

But unlike in past years, he noted, all events will take place indoors and attendees will be required to register in advance as a security precaution.

Security measures are being increased at Hanukkah celebrations nationwide, Richard Priem, the interim CEO of Community Security Service, told eJP. “If there is one beam of light during these challenging times, it’s the vast number of community members willing to step up to volunteer and protect their own. It sends a powerful message: We Jews are not afraid and we will stand up to protect our way of life,” Priem said. 

CSS, which offers security training and coordination to volunteers in hundreds of Jewish institutions around the country, is “intensifying our efforts by providing extra training and advice to Jewish communities in our network,” Priem said, adding that “we will deploy hundreds of trained security volunteers to protect Hanukkah-related events, especially in the tri-state area.” 

Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, said, “In the wake of Oct. 7, there’s a renewed sense of Jewish unity and resolve entering Hanukkah.”

“To enable our community to proudly and publicly come together, UJA and Shine A Light are hosting nearly a dozen events across New York to shine a light on antisemitism and celebrate the holiday with elected and faith leaders, friends, and family,’ Goldstein continued. 

On the West Coast, Rabbi Noah Farkas, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles president and CEO, echoed a similar sentiment. 

“Our Jewish community is facing a dark and challenging time this Hanukkah season,” he said. “This has been especially felt by our young Jewish community, who are being harassed in unprecedented numbers across college campuses and online.”

Farkas added that Jewish communities should not let fear stop them from celebrating openly. 

“We must always remember to find light and to not hide in fear. We have a number of initiatives that spread the light of joy in these dark times,” he said.

The L.A. federation is running events including the Infinite Light program for young professionals, the Zoo Lights program, partnered with the Los Angeles Zoo, for Jewish families with young children and Shine A Light dinner parties, which are “designed as safe spaces to have courageous conversations about antisemitism with civic and education leaders across Los Angeles,” according to Farkas.

“We also annually light the menorah with civic and elected officials at city hall.  We hope these programs inspire others around the world to do the same,” he said. 

The Jewish Agency for Israel is encouraging those celebrating Hanukkah to spotlight a victim of Oct. 7 on each of the eight nights of the holiday, by using the organization’s “In Their Light” kit. The kit contains eight stories of people injured or killed during Hamas’ attack, as well as two empty cards so people can add their own heroes. Participants are encouraged to dedicate each night’s candle to one of the victims. Thousands of Jewish Agency shlichim (Israeli emissaries) stationed around the world are distributing the kits to their communities. In North America, hundreds of shlichim will distribute them along with over 3,000 packs of candles that were ordered from a factory in Sderot, a town that suffered extensive attacks on Oct. 7 and throughout the war and has largely been evacuated.

Amid the planned festivities in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and hundreds of other cities, in Williamsburg, Va., a scheduled Hanukkah celebration set to take place during the Second Sundays Art and Music Festival on Dec. 10 was canceled earlier this week, sparking controversy and claims of discrimination. 

According to the Virginia Gazette, the event, which was meant to feature a menorah lighting led by a local rabbi, was abruptly called off by LoveLight Placemaking, the festival’s organizer. They cited concerns about the Israel-Hamas conflict as the reason for canceling. Shirley Vermillion, the festival’s founder, said the menorah lighting “seemed very inappropriate” given Israel’s war with Gaza, the newspaper reported. 

“The concern is of folks feeling like we are siding with a group over the other … not a direction we ever decide to head,” Vermillion told the newspaper, adding that Christian and other religious groups were denied performances.

On Monday, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin condemned the cancellation. 

“Singling out the Jewish community by canceling this Hanukkah celebration is absurd and antisemitic. The event organizers should immediately reconsider their actions and move forward with the menorah lighting,” Youngkin wrote on X. 

The menorah lighting will instead be held on William & Mary’s campus on Thursday.