Mayor Thomas Bernard, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Paul Marino and Drew Zuckerman on Sunday.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Young Drew Zuckerman confidently climbed the ladder Sunday evening and reached out to take part in a major historical event: lighting the city's first menorah.
"It's time to do something we've never done, that's to celebrate Hanukkah here," the 9-year-old declared, and threw his arms into the air to applause. "To Hanukkah."
The Jewish community has been an integral part of North Adams for more than a century, but not until Sunday, the start of the eight nights of the Festival of Lights, did Hanukkah become part of the city's holiday celebrations.
"It will stand here in the city, a symbol of light in a time of darkness, and as we gaze upon its light, may our hearts be lightened in this year and in years come, may we feel the joy of knowing that this is a city that welcomes all of its inhabitants and celebrates with all of its inhabitants," said Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel and Drew's mother. "What a tremendous gift this is, what a remarkable place we are in."
Mayor Thomas Bernard said the question had arisen about recognizing Hanukkah. City Hall has had a small menorah in the lobby for a number of years but after speaking with Barenblat about what would be appropriate, the decision made to order a large public menorah.
"This is the first and we didn't know what to expect and I was thrilled with the turnout and the energy," he said.
Some three dozen people attended the lighting at Dr. Arthur O. Rosenthal Square near City Hall. Local historian Paul Marino described it as a "major historic event."
The smaller Jewish community had been respectable but looked down upon, he said, but it was the House of Israel, the precursor to Beth Israel, that had been the first to "extend the hand of community friendship" to the Methodists when their church burned down in 1929. Not the Baptists, nor the Catholics, nor the Episcopalians, but rather the temple had offered its sanctuary for as long as the Methodists needed it.
"This is the very first time ever that North Adams is coming together as a community in saying to its Jewish population, 'you are our neighbors, you are our friends and we are so happy and proud of that fact that in the middle of celebrating our holiday, Christmas, we want to help you celebrate your holiday, Hanukkah."
Christmas celebrations can be somewhat overwhelming, said Barenblat. "It's easy to feel like people don't see us ... having this menorah right here in the middle of town says to me, North Adams cares about the Jewish community and wants us to feel welcome."
Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday although it has become more prominent because of its proximity to Christmas. It marks the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after a revolt led by the Macabees against Seleucid Empire control around 165 B.C.E. The legend is that there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one day but it lasted eight. There are nine candles on a menorah, including one to light the others. Each night during Hanukkah, one candle is lit.
"It is a holiday about light in the darkness and hope even when it seems all hope should be lost and I think that resonates with our neighbors of other faiths as well," the rabbi said.
The congregation's President Christina Kelly thanked the mayor and said the event was "very meaningful to our community."
"I feel like we've gotten a lot of support from the wider community with all the anti-Semitism that's been happening around the country and the world," she said. "It just means so much that we have the support of those who are not Jewish."
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