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Colorado Jews embrace Hanukkah amid Israel-Hamas war. “We are in a very dark place and we need light.”

Public celebrations draw hundreds, and many display menorahs, in defiance of rising antisemitism

From left, Dr. Ben Machanic, Alan Hoffman and Rabbi Shmuly Engel light the candles on the large Menorah outside of the Chabad of Cherry Creek
From left, Dr. Ben Machanic, Alan Hoffman and Rabbi Shmuly Engel light the candles on the large menorah outside of the Chabad of Cherry Creek on Dec. 10, 2023, in Denver. The Chabad of Cherry Creek held a lighting event outside on its plaza at 250 Fillmore street. The event marked the fourth night of Hanukkah. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Bruce Finley of The Denver Post

As the days grow shorter, Jews around Colorado somberly and resolutely have begun Hanukkah celebrations of light, turning to tradition amid discord over the killing in Israel, the nation created as a haven for Jews fleeing persecution.

Jewish community leaders on Monday reported healthy turnouts at holiday gatherings and more menorahs in windows than usual. Seldom have Jews felt a greater need for this eight-day religious celebration, said Dan Leshem, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which represents 40 Jewish organizations in the state.

“We are in a very dark place and we need light, ” he said.

But the estimated 110,000 Coloradans who identify as Jewish also have braced against rising antisemitism and intense public criticism of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Defense Forces launched the military campaign in Gaza after Hamas, which has been designated by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, attacked Israelis on Oct. 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people. Hamas fighters also took about 240 hostages.

Now more than 17,000 Palestinians have been killed, many of them women and children, according to health officials in Gaza. The war has displaced 1.9 million Palestinians who live in Gaza — 85% of the population — prompting international calls for a cease-fire that the U.S. government has opposed. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Over the past two months, pro-Palestinian rallies on college campuses and in cities have left Jewish Americans in Colorado, including some who have ties to Israel, feeling insecure and targeted themselves, Jewish community leaders said. And as Hanukkah began, one rabbi said, many were reluctant to display candles in menorahs.

“What’s happening is that there’s been a bit of an erasure between what is Jewish and what is Israeli,” Leshem said. “People who want to protest Israel are not pausing to consider the distinctions. … These are Jewish-Americans.”

A spike in antisemitism has spread into schools. Leshem said his 10-year-old daughter, a fifth grader in Denver, suffered a verbal attack by a classmate who saw her drawing the Jewish Star of David in her notebook.

“A lot of the anti-Israel activists have wanted to say Jews are implicated because Jews support Israel,” Leshem said. “But, of course, Jews in this country — even Israelis in this country — do not influence the policy in Israel because they do not get to vote. A lot of Jews are saying: ‘We have never felt so unsafe.’ ”

There’s a diversity of opinion among American Jews regarding Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks. This month in Denver, Jewish Voice for Peace activists rallied in Denver, calling for a cease-fire as part of pro-Palestinian demonstrations targeting the Global Conference for Israel hosted in Denver.

Hanukkah as a holiday celebrates freedom from oppression. It marks the rededication around 165 B.C.E. of Judaism’s temple in Jerusalem after Jewish fighters liberated it from foreign occupiers. The fighters found a tiny supply of ritually purified oil in the temple and relied on it to light a menorah that miraculously kept burning for eight days.

During Hanukkah, which began Dec. 7, Jews gather on each of eight consecutive nights to light a candle in a menorah and remember that ancient heroism.

Security officials at synagogues around Colorado were anticipating possible protests, aware of public ceremonies canceled in Williamsburg, Virginia, and Toronto.

No events in Colorado have been canceled, said Scott Levin, director of the Rocky Mountain regional headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League, which combats antisemitism.

Hundreds gathered at the end of last week for Hanukkah first-night celebrations in Denver at Temple Sinai and Temple Emanuel — where Rabbi Emily Hyatt saw these as especially hard times. Jews in Colorado “are thinking about the war between Israel and Hamas and they are thinking about the rise of antisemitism here in the United States,” she said in an interview last week.

Many in the Jewish community are torn as they weigh whether to display menorahs in home windows, fearful of putting themselves at risk, she said. Infusing light into the community during a dark time of year lies at the core of Hanukkah.

“The whole Jewish community feels different right now — the way we are talking in the community, and what we are talking about. It is all framed with great worry and awareness that the world feels different,” said Hyatt, who also serves as president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbis and Cantors. “So many people have been injured, or worse, in Israel. We have hostages that still haven’t been released. That is top of mind, and everybody is thinking about security here.”

Rabbi Shmuly Engel addresses people gathered to watch the lighting of the large menorah outside of the Chabad of Cherry Creek on Dec. 10, 2023, in Denver. The Chabad of Cherry Creek held a lighting event outside on its plaza at 250 Fillmore street. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Rabbi Shmuly Engel addresses people gathered to watch the lighting of the large menorah outside of the Chabad of Cherry Creek on Dec. 10, 2023, in Denver. The Chabad of Cherry Creek held a lighting event outside on its plaza at 250 Fillmore street. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Around Colorado, the number of people contacting the Anti-Defamation League increased fourfold over the already-elevated level a year ago, submitting 10 to 15 reports a day earlier this month about incidents such as harassing calls to synagogues, Levin said. The number of reported incidents has decreased to about five per day this week, he said. Those include a report of swastikas scrawled in a Denver-area elementary school bathroom and the tearing down of a mezuzah — parchment that displays Hebrew verses from the Torah — from an apartment door.

The war has inflamed tensions. Nationwide, the number of antisemitic incidents documented between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7 reached 2,031, according to an ADL report released Monday. That’s more than quadruple the 465 recorded during the same period in 2022.

The new incidents included 1,411 “clearly linked to the Israel-Hamas war,” an ADL memo about the report said. Among the reported incidents were 40 physical assaults, 337 cases of vandalism, 749 incidents of verbal or written harassment, and 905 rallies where participants made antisemitic statements or called for terrorism against Israel.

Conflict over the war in Israel also was cited by the Council on American-Islamic Relations as a factor in a surge in reported bias incidents targeting Palestinians and Muslims in the United States.

In Colorado, some Jewish students have been hiding their identity, tucking necklaces inside their shirts, Levin said.

“The best thing people can do is still engage in their community and try to show confidence in themselves and their positions,” Levin said, acknowledging anxieties around displaying menorahs in windows. “I don’t think people should hide their identities. It is understandable why people are questioning it. You have got to be safe and secure in your home. But it is a great symbol to put in your window.”

At Temple Emanuel, Rabbi Hyatt said more community members are requesting consultations with her this year compared with the past. Religious matters are intertwined with conversations about Israel, where “the fate of the Palestinian people, and Gazans, is directly tied to Hamas more than anything else — a hard place for them to be,” she said.

“I feel a great sense of grief for what we have lost in Israel and for the continued war and pain and loss of life — loss of innocent life,” Hyatt said. “As humans, we are complex thinkers. We can deeply mourn the loss of all innocent lives. No one loves war. This is hard and painful and heartbreaking and challenging. We can love and support Israel and its right to exist and defend itself, without having to sign off on every decision the IDF makes,” she said, referring to the Israeli Defense Forces.

The public criticism of Israel’s war seems to have revived antisemitic tropes that, to Hyatt and other leaders, seemed deliberate. They arise from more than confusion or “a feeling of standing up for Palestinians” who are seen as “the underdog,” Hyatt said.

And Jews in Colorado, who often have stood with and marched with U.S. minority groups fighting for social justice, now feel abandoned and left out, she said.

“It is a mandate for us that we stand with other people who are fighting for rights, equality and the life they want to build,” Hyatt said. “But the Jewish community now wants to know: Where are our friends that we stood with? We feel pretty alone right now.”