Sundown Tuesday marked the first night of Hanukkah for Jews around the world. The annual festival celebrates a miracle — the story of a small group of Jews’ victory over the ruling Greeks in 166 BCE in what was then known as Judea, and the discovery of one night’s worth of ritually pure olive oil to light the menorah. That oil was said to last for eight nights.
But in the wake of October’s catastrophic firestorm, some North Bay Jews might find this year’s celebratory candlelighting difficult, said Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Santa Rosa’s Congregation Shomrei Torah.
And that’s OK, she said.
“I think at this point, people are really dealing with” post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, noting that 35 households in her congregation lost their homes during the fires. “The visceral reaction to the smell of smoke is overwhelming for many, so really (I want for people) to be able to reclaim the sanctity of lighting a fire and a menorah during Hanukkah as something joyous rather than something so terrifying.”
To help her congregants’ return to normalcy, she reached out to rabbis across the nation who worked through natural disasters to ask for their guidance. One of them was Rabbi Steven Chester, who served as rabbi at Oakland’s Temple Sinai when fires swept through the Oakland hills in October 1991. Chester told her that he found it helpful to provide congregants with a set of Shabbat candlesticks.
“Shabbat candlesticks are lovely,” Kramer said, recalling the conversation. “But wouldn’t it be lovely if we could provide our families with a starter kit of everything they’d need to celebrate the different holy days and holidays throughout the year?” With the help of families and Jewish groups across the nation, that’s exactly what Shomrei Torah did — filling gift baskets full of Judaica including menorahs, dreidels, copies of the Torah, candles, a Passover Seder plate and kiddush cups used when blessing wine.
“Our city’s in so much pain right now,” Kramer said. “It didn’t go away when the fire was contained or the fire extinguished. It’s not going to go away anytime soon. We’re looking at such a long road to recovery and the holiday season … people have this unspoken feeling that they should feel (joyous) … and they should be around loved ones and friends, and many aren’t there yet.
“It’s OK that this year isn’t like every other year’s. You can feel the way that you want to feel, and that’s natural. You don’t have to put on a mask of joyousness that might not be there.”
But Hanukkah is a celebratory time, and for those feeling up to it, spreading a little joy just might do them some good, Kramer said.