During Hanukkah — which this year starts Sunday at sundown and is observed through Dec. 6 — families gather during the darkest days of year to remember their heritage, share the light and warmth of the human spirit, and further a tradition of tolerance and acceptance.
Which can make Jackson Hole a uniquely beautiful and meaningful place to experience the 2,200-year-old holiday.
Hanukkah commemorates a historical conflict between Syrian-Greeks and Jews. During one battle the oppressors, who sought to force the Jews to worship the Greek pantheon, ransacked the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, destroying jars of kosher oil used to light the temple’s candelabrum, or menorah. A small group of resisters, the Maccabees, fought back against the treatment of their people and holy places, and against all odds defeated the Syrian army.
The miraculous origin of the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah was sparked by the discovery a single jar of pure, sealed oil — just enough to keep the menorah lit for one day — but it lasted for eight days.
In Jackson Hole, Hanukkah observances and community services are led by Chabad of Wyoming, directed by Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn, Wyoming’s only full-time ordained rabbi, and the Jackson Hole Jewish Community Center.
“Hanukkah typically coincides with Christmas,” Rabbi Mendelsohn said, “but this year it’s very early,” concluding long before observance of the Christian holiday starts.
“While both holidays are beautiful and important for the people who celebrate them, there is something special about Hanukkah being on its own this year,” Mendelsohn said. “We encourage as much participation as possible, regardless of religious background.”
This year Chabad of Wyoming will light a huge new menorah on Town Square at 7 p.m. Dec. 4 and lead the group songs, tell the story of Hanukkah, and serve traditional treats like hot potato pancakes (latkes), jelly-filled donuts (sufganiyah) and chocolate coins made specifically for Hanukkah (gelt). For those who need them to celebrate, menorahs and dreidels will be made available.
While Hanukkah’s origins are ancient, Rabbi Mendelsohn believes the holiday still has significance in modern times.
“By sharing the light of the menorah, we share the light of our own hearts,” he said. “We go into the world around us and push back against the persecution and religious bigotry that still exists today. Hanukkah is a universal symbol of humanity fighting back against oppression.”
For Rachel Kantor, a local fitness instructor and a member of Chabad of Wyoming, Jackson’s close-knit Jewish community was a major factor in her and her husband Avi Kantor’s decision to put down roots in the area.
“Here in Jackson it doesn’t matter what your faith is or where you are from,” she said. “The Jewish community is warm, welcoming and inclusive to everyone.
“Compared to most Jewish holidays,” she said, “Hanukkah is a relatively minor one. The fact that it happens around Christmas makes it more well known. We see it as a time to pass along important messages and traditions to our children. We give gifts — one for each of the eight days of Hanukkah — we pray and sing songs. It’s a time of togetherness.”
Observing Hanukkah has been a longstanding tradition for the Jackson Hole Jewish Community, the town’s oldest independent and unaffiliated Jewish organization.
“We gather to light the menorah and remember the miracle of Hanukkah,” said Josh Kleyman, the congregation’s lay leader, teacher and a Rabbinic student. “We eat potato latkes and sing songs. This beautiful celebration has been held in the homes of our members for years. It’s exciting, because the organization has grown quite a bit since the Jackson Hole Jewish Community started more than 40 years ago. Now there are 115 active member-families.”
Each year during Hanukkah, youth of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community engage in a creative project with an altruistic purpose. For one such perennial project they partner with Chef Oscar Ortega, master chocolatier of Atelier Ortega, to design customized, silver foil-wrapped chocolate coins, or gelt, that are given to children and teachers as gifts during the holiday.
“The kids work on projects to raise funds for nonprofits that actively help our community by doing works of ‘tikkun olam,’ which is Hebrew for ‘world repair.’” Kleyman said. “This year the sale of the silver-wrapped Hanukkah gelt they designed with Oscar Ortega will benefit the Jackson Hole Children’s Museum and One22, two nonprofits that actively encourage youth education.”
The Hanukkah gelt designed by Jackson Hole Jewish Community youth is currently available for sale at Atelier Ortega in Jackson.
Jackson’s Jewish residents will soon have a new gathering place in which to pray and celebrate the light of Hanukkah. Construction for the town’s first Jewish synagogue is scheduled to start in April 2022.
Also in the works: Rabbi Mendelsohn and the Chabad have commissioned a torah scroll, the first ever for Wyoming. The project involves a torah scroll writer to embark on a yearlong writing of the torah with quill and ink on 60 pieces of parchment that will then be sewn together. ￼￼