On the fifth day of Hanukkah we took to the Judean lowlands to retrace the footsteps of the Maccabees, and spent an evening walking among the Hanukkah lights in Jerusalem - all thanks to public tours ran by the KKL-JNF Education and Community Division.
Dressed in full battle regalia, Judah the Maccabee greeted the schoolchildren from Mitzpe Yericho at the very site where his forces had defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Emmaus, otherwise known as the Ayalon Canada Park of KKL-JNF. He explained to them that his small band of poorly-equipped warriors managed to rout the massive Greek army not just because of bravery, but also because they knew that they had no other choice. “We then entered Jerusalem to rededicate the Holy Temple, which had been desecrated by the Greeks. However we only found enough oil to light the Menorah for one day, but miraculously, it lasted for eight days. During that time we managed to ensure a fresh supply of olive oil,” recounted Judah the Maccabee, and with that, he sent his young audience to search the tree-covered area for the small clay oil jugs that he had hidden in advance.
Judah the Maccabee was played by Amir Schreiber, one of the actors engaged by the KKL-JNF Education and Community Division to perform for its Hanukkah events. Schreiber said that plans for public Hanukkah events remained up in the air until the very last minute, due to the ever-changing Coronavirus situation. “However,” he continued, “just a couple of days day before the celebrations were due to take place, the government gave the go-ahead. We were all on frenzied high alert at that point, and we quickly snapped into action.”
Hannukah trip to Ayalon Canada Park. (Photo: Dennis Zinn, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
Hanukkah events took place at KKL-JNF sites in the north, center, and south of Israel, and anyone could sign up to join. The sprawling 7,500-acre Ayalon Canada Park so closely connected to the Hanukkah story was a very popular destination. COVID-19 restrictions required visitors to register in advance for all the activities. Schoolchildren in their class capsules, employees on team-building trips and families on Hanukkah break – all wearing masks, of course - came to participate in the Hanukkah events and to enjoy a day out in the countryside. Each group was led by a KKL-JNF guide.
After meeting Judah the Maccabee and hearing his story, the school children from Mitzpe Yericho were treated to a Hanukkah sing-along by musician Itamar Zachai. In between songs he told them special tales of Hanukkah. “It’s wonderfully preordained that the Jewish Festival of Light comes at a time of year when the days are at their shortest, to fill us with more light,” he said.
During the tour, the participants met other famous Hanukkah characters such as Matityahu ben Yochanan the Hasmonean, and other musicians playing Hanukkah songs on special instruments. The event ended with some hot soup and a traditional Hanukkah sufgania (donut) for each participant.
Meeting with famous Hanukkah characters during the trip. (Photo: Dennis Zinn, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
“It's incredible to be here,” enthused Kevin Ross from Efrat, who was participating with his family. “It's one thing to open a book to read about Hanukkah and perhaps look at pictures, and it’s a totally different experience when you are physically here. We are actually following the footsteps of the Maccabees. It’s incredible!” Ross, who had come on Aliyah from Philadelphia, USA only three months before, told us that he felt privileged to have heard about the event in the first place. “I became aware of this Hanukkah tour from the local Efrat English speaking WhatsApp group. I rushed to register and I’m so happy I did. Here in Israel, one does not read about Hanukkah, one walks through it.”
Sarah Oberstein, one of the parents accompanying the class from the Mitzpe Yericho school, said that she was full of appreciation for KKL-JNF. “It’s wonderful to see how our children are reacting as they engage with the story of Hanukkah. And besides, it's also amazing to be outdoors in this beautiful park. A big thank you to KKL-JNF for all the effort that went into making this event.”
KKL-JNF Educational Tour Coordinator Odeya Bilig said that she was thrilled that the Hanukkah events were going so well. “This outdoor festival cannot be taken for granted. People were confined to their homes for so long this year that we thought our extensive preparations may come to naught. I am so happy we persevered and did not give up. This Hanukkah our sites are teeming with visitors. We are making every effort to ensure that participants abide by the health ministry regulations.”
Musicians playing beloved Hanukkah tunes. (Photo: Dennis Zinn, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
Another KKL-JNF Hanukkah event we joined was a lights tour in the charming Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot. Each day of Hanukkah, from about 5:30 in the evening, visitors wandered the cobblestoned streets to see the menorah lights twinkling from hundreds of windows and front entrances. KKL-JNF guides were there to lead visitors around the vicinity from one candle-lighting celebration to the next and give running commentary. Here too, costumed actors were on hand to educate and to entertain, as were musicians playing beloved Hanukkah tunes.
Outside one building, a resident had placed a multitude of Hanukkah candelabras and was inviting visitors to light a Menorah for themselves. He also took the time to help those interested with reciting the blessings.
Lights tour in the charming Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot. (Photo: Dennis Zinn, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
One of the Nachlaot visitors was Alex Clayman, a young physician from the UK who is in the process of immigrating to Israel. Clayman said that he was thoroughly enjoying himself. “It’s nice to see the old traditions come alive and to see how the local residents relate to the candle lighting and the brachot (blessings). It’s also nice to be taken back to an ancient time in Jewish history and to get into the Hanukkah atmosphere.”
Jerusalem resident Hila Mukdasi, a dance teacher and founder of the Komuna multicultural dance troupe, participated in the event together with her Komuna dancers. “This Coronavirus period has kept us apart. We cannot dance so we look for other activities to bring us together. I was particularly intrigued by the KKL-JNF invitation to this event because Hanukkah is magical and there is no better time to be together.”
Odeya Bilig and Roni Abuhatzeira of KKL-JNF Education and Community Division. (Photo: Dennis Zinn, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
The special meaning of this year’s KKL-JNF Hanukkah events was expressed by Roni Abuhatzeira, the Educational Instruction Coordinator for the KKL-JNF Education and Community Division. “The efforts made to create a successful Hanukkah celebration for the people of Israel despite the threat of closure from Coronavirus, is not unlike the effort of the Maccabees who decided to light the Menorah even though there was oil for only one day,” she said. “They davka lit the Menorah at the site of the ancient temple, and we davka went ahead in planning these Hanukkah celebrations. As we have always done, we continue to move forward with strong faith and great happiness. Miracles do happen.”