Hanukkah in the Lowcountry 4

Celebrating Jewish Tradition

Although Hanukkah is one of the most well known Jewish holidays, there are many misconceptions that surround the meaning of why it is celebrated. If you have ever found yourself thinking of this celebration as an “extended Christmas” or “eight days of Christmas”, think again.

Rabbi Yossi Refson, co-founder of Chabad of Charleston and the Lowcountry, speaks of the rich culture of Judaism and what Hanukkah means for him and his family. Yossi and wife, Sarah Refson, were inspired to open Chabad of Charleston and the Lowcountry over seven years ago. Despite Mt. Pleasant’s close proximity to “The Holy City” that is Charleston, a solid Jewish infrastructure was missing in the area. What began as a home-based operation has since grown to become Mt. Pleasant’s largest Jewish cultural center, offering what Yossi describes as “a buffet of Jewish life and tradition”.

Yossi explained that the origin of Hanukkah dates back to ancient times. When Syrians stormed Jerusalem and desecrated the holiest Jewish temple of their time, Jews were robbed of their religious freedom and forced to worship Greek gods. The Maccabees came together, rose above the persecution, and reclaimed their holy temple. Once reclaimed, there was a need for the temple to be purified by lighting the eternal flame. Imagine the feelings of despair that filled their hearts when they discovered that there was only enough oil to burn for one day.

“The candles weren’t expected to burn for eight days, but they did,” Yossi explained, “Hanukkah commemorates that there wasn’t enough oil to burn for eight days, and it lasted that long.” Yossi made clear the moral of the story teaches us that we don’t control everything in our own lives.

“It represents faith and the need to let go; to let the universe unfold as it will.”

Rabbi Yossi also touched on the symbolic significance of some traditions that you will find during Hanukkah, describing these holiday traditions as “post it notes”, or reminders, of the true meaning behind the celebration. For example, eight of the arms on the menorah hold place for eight candles as a reminder of the miracle oil that lasted eight days. In addition, many of the traditional holiday foods that you will find, such as latkes and jelly donuts, are prepared in oil, giving these dishes deeper significance.

Many valuable lessons can be found in the story of this well-known holiday, and the rise against prosecution to secure religious independence makes Hanukkah the perfect time to celebrate religious freedom. And what better place to celebrate this freedom other than the Holy City? Chanukah in the Square, an open celebration in downtown’s Marion Square, started with the City of Charleston and the College of Charleston ten years ago. This free event welcomes all with the purpose of bringing together the community to celebrate Hanukkah and religious independence.

Sponsored by Chabad of the Lowcountry and practically every Jewish organization in the county, Chanukah in the Square gives people of all backgrounds the opportunity to come together and experience South Carolina’s largest Hanukkah celebration. There will be games for children, jumping castles, rides, crafts, and traditional Jewish foods for all to experience and enjoy. And the fact that the menorah can be lit in the square to celebrate our country and religious freedom is remarkable.

Regardless of what you are celebrating this holiday season, let us all give thanks that we live in a place where we have the freedom to worship as we choose. “Spirituality and freedom are a part of the fabric of this country,” Yossi spoke, “If we are confident and celebrate our past, it gives us the opportunity to celebrate the future.”