Photo by Meg O'Neil
By Meg O’Neil
This December will mark the first Chanukah celebration for Touro Synagogue’s new spiritual leader, Rabbi Dr. Marc Mandel. He and his family moved to Newport in June after spending the last 16 years in Los Angeles, California. On Sunday, Dec. 9, Mandel, his family, and the members of Congregation Jeshuat Israel at Touro Synagogue will welcome all families to participate in a candle-lighting ceremony commemorating the second night of Chanukah at the Levi Gale House, 85 Touro St. from 5 – 7 p.m.
For those unfamiliar with Jewish custom, Chanukah is an eight-day and eight-night holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt.
Mandel explains: “Chanukah celebrates the miracles of the victory of the Maccabees, and how they were able to continue the Jewish spirit in a time when the Hellenistic influences were very great in trying to stamp out other faiths including the Jewish faith and practices, which [the Greeks] did not hold in high regard. The Maccabees were victorious and returned to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and located the menorah and found that the oil, which was supposed to last only one night, lasted for several days. It was a great miracle.”
The menorah is a nine-branched candelabrum. According to custom, one branch is lit each night during the eight nights of Chanukah. The ninth branch is an auxiliary candle, used to light the other candles. Candles used in a menorah are typically blue or white – the colors of the flag of Israel. Some menorahs do not use candles, but instead use small olive oil lamps.
For Mandel and his congregation, the celebration of Chanukah is of special significance at Touro Synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue in the United States. “This congregation was dedicated during Chanukah, so it’s a very special time of year,” he said.
So significant was the opening night of Touro Synagogue in 1763 that the evening’s affair was documented in great detail by Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist minister in Newport, who was a friend of the Jewish community, and who would later go on to become President of Yale University.
Before the opening service, the Touro congregation invited community members of all faiths to join in their celebration. Of the service, Stiles wrote the following:
“December 2, 1763, Friday. In the afternoon was the dedication of the new Synagogue in this town. There were present many Gentleman and Ladies. The order and decorum, the Harmony & Solemnity of the Musick, together with a handsome Assembly of People, in an Edifice the most perfect of the temple kind perhaps in America, and splendidly illuminated, could not but raise in the Mind a faint Idea of the Majesty and Grandeur of the Ancient Jewish Worship mentioned in Scripture … Dr. Isaac de Abraham Touro performed the service … There may be 80 souls of Jews or 15 families now in town.”
Today, the Touro congregation is roughly 105 families, and Mandel says the historic significance of synagogue was one of the big draws to the area for him and his wife, Jackie.
“I think many Jewish people are familiar with the history of Newport. Maybe not all the details, but certainly that it’s the oldest synagogue in the United States,” he said. Originally from the East Coast, the Mandels spent the past 16 years in California with Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, before moving to Newport this summer. “It’s very nice here. We’ve been here only a short time, and we’re learning more about the community each day,” he said.
With five of their six children grown, only their 12-year-old son Carmi lives in Newport full-time and attends Providence Hebrew Day School. “The day after we arrived in Newport, Carmi ran to take a tour of Touro Synagogue,” Mandel said. “He was very excited about the fact that this is a historic congregation. He’s a young boy, but somehow the significance really resonated with him.”
During the event on Dec. 9, guests will watch as the rabbi lights the second candle commemorating the second night of the festival of lights. Visitors will be offered refreshments, including potato latkes (pan-fried cakes). Fried foods are part of the Chanukah tradition as a reference to the olive oil that miraculously kept the original menorah lit for eight days.
Other treats will include chocolate Chanukah gelt. Gelt is Yiddish for “money,” traditionally a small amount of coins that are considered tokens of gratitude. In the 1920s, American chocolatiers picked up on the coin concept, and began creating chocolate gelt for children.
While Chanukah is considered a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish faith, Mandel said because of where it falls in the calendar, it’s celebrated as a festive event. “Chanukah has become more important because we’re surrounded by other faiths that have their holidays around this time, but in the scheme of things, it’s not really on the same level as Yom Kippur or Passover. Chanukah is not even mentioned in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It took place after. But it still has very great importance to people.”
Mandel said the symbolism of the eight candles stretches far beyond the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights.
“People find comfort with the idea of lighting the candles in the middle of the winter,” he explains. “The menorah radiates warmth and encourages hope for the future – and always looking for a glimmer of hope in Jewish history. For several periods of time, where there wasn’t much hope, the menorah stood as a symbol of that hope.”
Plans for next December call for the congregation to mark its 250th year with a reenactment of the 1763 dedication ceremony. “We’ll recreate the entire program as far as we know how it occurred,” Mandel said. “ It’s not just going to be a candle-lighting, but a march to the sanctuary followed by special prayers and a service in the sanctuary.”