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Harford rabbi organizes public Hanukkah prayers

A song in Hebrew rang out from a crowd gathered in a Harford County park at sundown Wednesday. Throughout the joyful salute to Hanukkah, Peter Silton held a burning torch.

After the singers intoned, "Amen," he lit the first candle of a towering metal menorah to honor the first night of the Jewish celebration. He needed a stepladder to light the shamas — the candle that is usually lit first then used to light the others — officially beginning the first Hanukkah observance in the county to be held on public property.

"Now it's party time," Rabbi Yekusiel Schusterman said. While music played in the background, the group sipped hot cider, ate latkes and doughnuts, and got to know one another.

"There are people here that I have known for years, and others I have never met," said Silton, a Bel Air resident and friend of the rabbi. "We have created community here."

The rabbi, who founded an Orthodox congregation in Bel Air only two months ago, had issued an open invitation to the community. About 60 people joined in an observance similar to many public celebrations across the nation on the first night of the eight-day feast.

"We want to publicly honor the Hanukkah miracle and encourage every Jew to light candles at home," he said. "We hope this will get the word out about our congregation and this miracle of lights."

The Orthodox congregation's celebration was unusual for Harford County's relatively small Jewish community, which traditionally has observed Hanukkah quietly, with most celebrations taking place in homes and at a long-established Reform synagogue in Havre de Grace. But Schusterman's fledgling congregation, part of the Chabad movement, prefers a more public observance. The candle lighting and prayers precede the town's annual tree lighting at the same location this weekend.

Town officials waived the permit requirement for the band shell in Shamrock Park, next to the town hall, and offered it as a shelter from the gusty winds, an accommodation the rabbi said made the festivities feel more intimate.

Silton, who worships at a synagogue in Owings Mills, said he did not grow up with such public displays, but he finds them widely accepted now.

"This just means Harford County is stepping into the 21st century," he said. "This rabbi has already increased the study of Judaism and encouraged us all to learn and be more observant."

Rabbi Gila Ruskin, leader of the 55-year-old Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, said her Reform congregation of about 200 households prefers to observe Hanukkah in their homes and at their synagogue rather than in a public location. The temple has planned several celebrations during the next week.

"I imagine most, if not all our members, will be lighting candles in their homes," she said. "We encourage people to light the menorah and put it in a window to commemorate what happened thousands of years ago. Also, in that way, passers-by will know this is a Jewish home."

She said she has no objection to Chabad's more public proclamation of the miracle of lights. In fact, some in her congregation are stringing blue and white lights on their homes and a few have added blow-ups of menorahs and dreidls, the top used in Hanukkah games, to their front yards.

County Councilman James V. McMahan, just elected to his second term representing the Bel Air area, called Schusterman forward-thinking and lauded his efforts as "an incredible step forward in unity for all of us in one community."

McMahan, who attended the service, said, "It is important that Christians and Jews show the solidarity that, biblically, goes way back. Why not continue this tradition today?"

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said ordinarily he might question holding a religious service on public property. But, he said, since a tree lighting follows, he sees the Hanukkah observance as part of the town's general celebration of the holidays.

McMahan said, "Jewish leaders across the nation have publicly defended the Christian celebration of a Christmas tree, so that it does not become a benign holiday tree. It is only fitting that we show good fellowship and support their holiday."

The Hanukkah holiday is based on the Jewish belief in a miracle that happened thousands of years ago in Jerusalem's Holy Temple, when Judah Maccabee lit the menorah there. Greek soldiers had ransacked the temple, leaving barely enough oil to light the menorah, a traditional symbol of Judaism, for one day. Tradition holds that the small supply lasted for eight days, until new oil was available.

In most homes, a candelabra with eight candles and a shamas has replaced the oil lamp.

Lisa Sullivan, who is Jewish and married to a Christian, came to the lighting ceremony with her three young children.

"We celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah at home," she said. "We have a tree and a menorah, but I wanted the kids to see this service and learn a little about their Hebrew heritage."

Schusterman opened Chabad of Harford County in a storefront at the corner of Lee and Main streets in Bel Air after hearing that many local Jews were traveling to Baltimore County to worship. He said he has contacted dozens of Jewish families to gauge their interest in joining him in worship. "I want to meet everyone, and I want their honest assessment," he said.

"We are letting everyone know that our center is available to them," Schusterman said. "I hope we will soon be bursting at the seams."




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