By Janet Goetze
For the Hollywood Star News
Chanukah, sometimes spelled Hanukkah, is a Jewish family holiday featuring traditional foods and activities, including lighting a nine-branch candelabra, called a menorah, to recall a miracle from 2,200 years ago.
Part of the festivities include games with a dreidel, a Yiddish word for a spinning top. In some families, children also receive gifts during the eight days.
“What I like is seeing the children’s faces,” said Tehila Vanfossen, who moved from Texas three years ago to join family in the Roseway neighborhood. This year Vanfossen and other Jewish families on Portland’s East Side have a meeting place for celebrations and services they once found only on the West Side.
In March, the Chabad Center for Jewish Life opened at 2858 N.E. Sandy Blvd., offering studies of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible; religious services; children’s Hebrew school and informal social gatherings and cultural events.
When the holiday begins at sundown December 24, the date set by the lunar calendar, the center will be transformed into a Chanukah Wonderland with foods, music, decorations and activities for all ages, said Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm.
About four years ago, Rabbi Wilhelm and his wife, Mushka, began offering events in their Hollywood neighborhood home, including Shabbat, or Friday evening dinner. They also started a Hebrew school for children and arranged other activities attended by those seeking a nearby Jewish community. With the 1,400-square-foot center leased for the next three years, the rabbi said, they intend to offer, in effect, a home for nearly 8,000 Jews estimated to live on the East Side.
“A home is usually accessible,” said Rabbi Wilhelm, noting some Jewish families find travel to West Side locations inconvenient, especially in heavy traffic. “A connection with spirituality, with God, should be in my neighborhood, not eight miles away.”
The location is especially important for Orthodox Jews and others who don’t drive cars or operate other mechanical devices on the Sabbath or important holidays.
Vanfossen, for instance, said she walked 3.3 miles from her home to the Chabad Center during October’s High Holy Days, which include Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement. Getting to West Side services would have been nearly impossible for her, she said.
Creating a home for all Jews, whether Orthodox, conservative, reform or none of the above, is a goal of the Chabad movement in which both the Wilhelms were raised. A website, www.chabad.org, explains: “At Chabad, we don’t label ourselves, and we don’t label others. We’re just Jewish.”
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement and philosophy started about 250 years ago in Eastern Europe. After World War II and the holocaust, Chabad became a movement of self-confidence intended to provide a kind of Jewish renaissance, according to David Eliezrie in his book, The Secret of Chabad: Inside the World’s Most Successful Jewish Movement.
“Chabad is a nice fit for Portland,” said Sherry Genauer, a Grant Park neighborhood resident who has lived in the city for 14 years. “All are welcome here. It’s non-judgmental and nothing is imposed on anybody.”
Fred Stiber, a Laurelhurst resident who arrived in Portland about seven years ago, said his family joined a West Side synagogue but for convenience he attends Torah classes at the Chabad Center and his daughter is in the Hebrew school.
Basha Rothstein, a Rhododendron resident, said she discovered the West Side Chabad Center, started by Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm’s parents 30 years ago, and developed a stronger connection with her Jewish roots than she had felt previously. Recently, she has attended Torah classes and other events at the East Side center.
When people arrive for Chanukah festivities later this month, they will remember a miracle of 2,200 years ago when Syrian-Greek rulers wanted Jews to assimilate to their culture, which included idol worship and the ideal of outward beauty. Jews clung to one God and the importance of individual spiritual development.
A Syrian general was sent to wipe out the hold-out Jewish fighters led by Judah, called Maccabee. However, the Syrians were defeated. When the Jews returned to their desecrated temple, they found enough oil to light a candle for only one day. However, a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted for eight days. That’s remembered at Chanukah with the lighting of the menorah.
The story, said Rabbi Wilhelm, shows light overcoming darkness; of good triumphing over evil. Instead of valuing physical perfection, he said, it shows the intrinsic value of studying God’s wisdom and connecting with something beyond oneself.