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Beth El Temple Helps Celebrate Hanukkah in Djibouti

Local synagogue helps troops overseas celebrate the festival of lights.

For the seventh year, the Brotherhood at has shipped Hanukkah celebration packages to Jews serving overseas with the US military. The holiday begins in 2011 at sundown today, Dec. 20.

Last year, 200 packages went out to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Korea, Germany, Turkey, and the USS George Washington and the USS Abraham Lincoln. This is a small percentage of Jews in the military, but other organizations – one is named KosherTroops – reaches out to many more. Each package includes a music CD, gum, a kippah or traditional head covering in desert camouflage, a menorah, candles, candy and a spinning top or dreidl.

The packages also contain a letter from the congregation, along with handwritten cards from its children.

Brotherhood co-President Todd Shuster says that the congregation wishes to express its thanks for “the sacrifices … to protect our freedom here at home, religious and otherwise.”

This year, the Temple added Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa 6,813 miles from Belmont, to the list.

Hanukkah honors the victory of an outnumbered force of Jews called the Maccabees over Greek Syrian armies under King Antiochus. About 2,200 years ago, Antiochus IV controlled the area in present day Israel with the strongest military of its time, inheritors of Alexander the Great’s empire.

Sure of the superiority of his values, Antiochus imposed Greek culture and gods on the Jews. Those who studied the Torah or the Hebrew Bible and worshiped their One Supreme Being – and not Zeus and his bickering pantheon – risked their very lives. Tradition suggests that Jewish children kept the dreidl, a four-sided top for a game of chance, nearby as they studied Jewish texts. If Antiochus’s forces found them, the children they hid their scrolls and acted as if they were playing a game.  

Consequently, in each package sent by Beth El to a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, is a dreidl and chocolate coins to wager.

To heap more scorn on Jews who refused to Hellenize, Antiochus desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem with pig’s blood in a sacrifice to Zeus. The animal is a violation to this day of Jewish dietary law (for Muslims too).  

The Maccabees rose in revolt against Antiochus and Hellenistic culture, even against Jews who left their traditions. Antiochus did not doubt that he had the superior force. He did. Typical for a guerilla war, the Maccabees used their knowledge of terrain and their light but lethal weapons to defeat armored forces. In the hills of Judea, for example, on what is now called the West Bank, the Maccabees watched Greek Syrian cavalry and infantry enter the valleys.

From the hill tops, the Jews fired thousands of arrows into the air down on their enemy, what Antiochus’s forces later referred to as “Judean rain.” Over half a dozen years later, the Maccabees defeated Antiochus’s forces and won their autonomy. Judah Maccabee himself never lived to see that event. When he was killed, a brother took over as leader.

The victory is considered one miracle. In present day Israel, every four years the Maccabiah Games, a kind of Middle Eastern Olympics for international competition, honors the Maccabees.

A second miracle reportedly happened in the desecrated Temple, smeared with the unclean blood. In the rededication of the Temple, the Maccabees found oil for the lamps also ruined – except for one lamp. It had enough oil for one day. More was available elsewhere in Israel, but would take a week to arrive. The Temple was cleaned and that lamp was lit. Instead of one, the lamp burned eight days, hence the eight day holiday.

Traditionally, potato pancakes, also called latkes, are eaten because of the oil in which they are fried. Donuts are also acceptable – and perhaps easier to digest.  In each package sent to the military are a menorah or hanukkioth and enough candles for the eight days.

Rabbi Jonathan Kraus of Beth El suggests a third miracle: that the Jews in the Temple lit the nearly empty lamp at all. Since it could only burn one day, why bother? His interpretation of another miracle is the faith, the hope, which went into lighting that one lamp, anticipating an outcome equal to the Maccabee’s devotion and achievement.

The Temple has already heard back from one recipient of the packages.

A chaplain in Kuwait, Major Richard Souter, writes:

“[Y]our heartfelt gifts will be shared in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and as many other countries as Jewish Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsman are serving. The rich heritage that this approaching Hanukkah season celebrates [reminds us] that freedom must always be remembered and defended from those who seek to steal it away.”

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