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Hanukkah, from Belmont to the Congo

Bringing the holiday of lights to places far from home.

The US military is famous for shipping to service men and women overseas what they require: complete trauma units delivered by cargo plane, dried beef Stroganoff dinners in packets, and kits for cleaning a rifle or a cannon. 

But the Pentagon doesn’t offer a Hanukkah celebration kit, stacked in warehouses, waiting for shipment.

So it is up to civilians, among them the Brotherhood at Beth El Temple Center, go take on this project.

The Jewish Chaplaincy in New York, which sends chaplains and supplies to the US military, provides names and addresses for the packages. First and foremost, each kit contains candles and a menorah. Lighting candles commemorates twin miracles of faith and freedom.  

For the past eight years, the Brotherhood has led the congregation in sending Hanukkah – the Jewish festival of lights celebrated this time of year – kits to Jews serving overseas with the US military or at an embassy. 

Along with candles and menorahs, each package contains  a CD with Jewish music, a “desert camouflage” kippah or head covering, a dreidl or spinning top for games, chocolate coins to wager, bubble gum, a card from the religious school kids, a letter from the Brotherhood and Congregation, and a post card in hopes in hearing back from the recipients.

The children’s Hanukkah cards have been much appreciated over the years, according to the post cards and letters they have received back. The children also help pack the kits. The letter from Brotherhood president Todd Shuster thanks the service men and women for their service to our country.  

For the first time, the Brotherhood has sent 100 kits to AFRICOM, the U.S. African Command, along with another 50 kits to bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and to the USS Wasp. AFRICOM is the American military and civilian organization advancing American interests in Africa, often through training local military forces.

Six individuals serving in the Congo are Jewish; hence, Hanukkah in the Congo. The rest are serving in places like Djibouti and Libya, the latter indicative of the dangers Americans face. 

The holiday of Hanukkah has a military history, one that occurred over two thousand years ago. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of Jewish forces over Greek Syrian armies under King Antiochus. 

Israel’s enemies desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem as they fought the rebellion led by a family named the Maccabees. Once the Jews regained control of their capital, they had to clean and sanctify the Temple, that is, rededicate the building so that religious services could be held again.  Hanukkah itself means dedication, both in sanctifying the Temple and in the fighting spirit of the outnumbered Maccabees, whom present day Israel honors with athletic events and games.

The candles and menorahs (also called hanukkioth) in the kit commemorate the religious miracle of the holiday, along with the victory over superior forces.  The desecrated Temple had only enough clean oil to last a day, yet burned for eight days until more could be brought in. The traditional food for the holiday is potato pancakes, not for the potatoes as much as for the symbolism of the oil although donuts also work.

Beth El Temple Center held their annual Hanukkah party when the holiday begins with the lighting of the first candle, on Saturday. In the Congo, those Jewish personnel serving our country will light theirs and know they are remembered.

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