Military’s Jewish community celebrates start of Hanukkah
Hanukkah starts today at sundown, but for the military’s small Jewish communities in Europe, celebrating the eight-day holiday with a rabbi could involve some traveling.
In the Kaiserslautern area, for instance, home to the largest concentration of U.S. forces in Europe, there is just one rabbi.
“We have the only one in USAFE (U.S. Air Forces in Europe),” noted Senior Master Sgt. Richard Peters, a chapel superintendent at Ramstein Air Base.
About 12 Jewish families participate in the weekly services at Ramstein’s synagogue. While that number may seem small, “compared to most Air Force installations, that’s pretty large,” Peters said.
In smaller, more isolated military communities, lay leaders help Jewish families practice their faith and mark the holy days.
“They’re there to fill in and do the services,” said Rabbi Brad Hoffman, deputy director of the New York-based Jewish Welfare Board Chaplains Council.
The organization, which is part of the Jewish Community Center system, functions as the endorsing body for Jewish military chaplains who serve in the armed forces.
Military-wide, there are currently 73 lay leaders, according to Hoffman. In Europe, there are six, he said.
To become a lay leader, candidates must go through a certification process.
Lay leaders play a key role since there are only two rabbis now operating on bases in Europe, Hoffman said. He wasn’t sure where the other one was based. The shortfall is partly caused by rabbis being forward deployed to places like Iraq, Hoffman said.
“We’re actively recruiting. It’s something we’re working on, but it takes time,” Hoffman said.
Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated with the lighting of menorah candles each night. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, which had fallen into enemy hands in 168 B.C.
Three years later, Jerusalem was recaptured by the Maccabees and the temple restored to the Jewish people. According to tradition, candles burned for eight consecutive nights even though there was only enough oil for one day.
Gift-giving, songs and games are part of the celebrations for many Jewish families.
In Kaiserslautern, a 7 p.m. service and potluck to celebrate Hanukkah will be held Friday at the Ramstein South Chapel Synagogue.
In addition to the Kaiserslautern Military Community, Jewish families in surrounding areas are welcome to attend, Peters said.