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'One candle can make a difference': Jewish community in Wichita marks Hanukkah

Hugo Phan
The most well-known practice associated with Hanukkah is lighting a candle on the menorah each night.

See how a Jewish congregation in Wichita celebrates Hanukkah, and learn more about the 2,000-year-old holiday.

On the second night of Hanukkah, members of Congregation Emanu-El in Wichita recite three blessings in Hebrew. As the blessings sing out, they use the tallest candle on their menorahs – called a Shamash – to light another one.

Next, comes dinner. Leading the congregation is Rabbi Michael Davis. He said Emanu-El is the oldest Jewish congregation in Kansas, dating back to 1885.

Hugo Phan
Rabbi Michael Davis leads Congregation Emanu-El in Wichita.

“Pretty much as long as there’s been a Wichita, there’s been Congregation Emanu-El here,” he said.

Davis said Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday based on a war.

“And in fact, it was the first war in recorded history for religious freedom.”

The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where Jews revolted against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the second century B.C. to regain the freedom to practice Judaism.

The second event associated with Hanukkah, Davis said, is one that represents faith.

“And the other is the story that comes from the Talmud of the oil that lasted for eight days,” he said. “And from that we learned that we are dependent on God for the miracles of life, basically.”

That storied miracle spawned the most well-known practice associated with Hanukkah – lighting one candle on the menorah each night.

Jamie Smartt is a teacher in the religious school at the Jewish Community Center in Wichita. She said many Hanukkah traditions are focused on family and celebration.

“I have three kids, and the fun that surrounds Hanukkah, you cannot escape it. It's just the best,” she said. “It really is fun.”

There’s dreidel, a game in which players spin a four-sided top, with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet on each face.

And often coinciding with the game is the practice of giving children their Hanukkah gelt - or money. These days, it’s common for kids to receive chocolate coins wrapped in foil, rather than real ones.

Celebrations also come with fried foods made with oil, like jelly donuts and potato pancakes called latkes – a reference to the oil used to light the menorah each night.

jamie Smartt.JPG
Daniel Caudill
Jamie Smartt teaches in the religious school at the Jewish Community Center in Wichita. She says there's value in Jewish kids learning with one another about their heritage.

Smartt works year-round to teach her students about Jewish culture and values, far beyond just Hanukkah. Students also learn Hebrew language and prayers as preparation for their bar or bat mitzvahs.

She said there’s value in Jewish kids learning with one another about their heritage.

“One of my very favorite things that happens with our four-year-olds, when they're in a story time or they're listening to a song, and they have this moment where they're like, ‘Oh, that kid's Jewish like me!’”

A key value that Smartt aims to instill in both her students and her own kids is the concept of tikkun olam, or literally, repair the world.

It represents the idea that Jews should give back and strive to make the world a better place.

Smartt typically gives gifts to her own kids on each night of Hanukkah, reserving one night for giving to others.

“One light - one candle can make a difference. And you can do it for good or for ill, which way are you going to choose?”

Daniel Caudill is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. He was a reporter, photographer and digital content manager for The Derby Informer and an editor and reporter for The Sunflower. In the spring of 2020, Daniel helped cover the legislative session in Topeka as an intern for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @CaudillKMUW.