The annual lighting of the menorah on the Ashland Plaza took on special significance Sunday night as the crowd remembered those slain at a Pennsylvania synagogue in October.
The lighting marks the beginning of the eight-day Jewish holiday period of Hanukkah, sometimes spelled Chanukah.
Rabbi Avi Zwiebel, director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Southern Oregon in Ashland, said his daughter was volunteering for a youth program when a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27.
“She was able to hear the gunshots going off at the synagogue where 11 Jews were massacred for being Jewish,” he said. “But tonight on Chanukah is not a time to mourn. It’s a time to celebrate. It’s a time when we take that mourning and we transform it into joy.”
The shooting was the deadliest attack on Jews in America. Six people were injured in the attack, including police officers.
Suspect Robert Browers, 46, who spouted anti-Semitic comments and said he wanted all Jews to die, is facing dozens of federal charges.
Zwiebel said Jewish people have long been targeted, but they continue to show their resilience.
Thousands of years ago, a small band of Jews drove off an occupying army from their homeland. When they rededicated their temple and lit their menorah, a single container of olive oil burned for eight days, prompting the creation of Hanukkah — the festival of light, according to Jewish history.
“The holiday of Hanukkah goes way back 2,000 years ago, yet the message is relevant now more than ever,” Zwiebel said.
He said a time will come when light will conquer darkness, love will win out over hate and goodness will prevail over evil.
Zwiebel’s own grandfather, who lived in Germany in the 1930s, was beaten by members of the Hitler Youth shortly before Crystal Night, when Jewish businesses and people were attacked, leaving the streets strewn with broken glass. His grandfather escaped from Germany with other family members.
As the menorah stood on the downtown Ashland Plaza, Zwiebel said each person has a flame inside them that can be used to bring warmth and light to those around him.
The crowd joined in traditional songs and dancing — and then came the moment for which children had been waiting.
A man hoisted high in a Victor’s Tree Service arborist bucket tossed out gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins as kids looked up with smiling faces and outstretched hands.
Giving out either chocolate coins or real money to children has become a Hanukkah tradition.
Some adults use the gifts as a way to recognize kids for good behavior, such as diligence in their studies or acts of charity, according to the Chabad Jewish Center.
Medford resident Alex Levin, who came to the menorah lighting with his girlfriend, said he remembers playing games with a dreidel, or spinning top, and competing for the chocolate coins when he was growing up in Detroit. His mom would also make latkes — traditional potato pancakes fried in oil.
The crowd was able to sample latkes and other Jewish treats arranged on tables on the Ashland Plaza.
“It reminds me of home,” Levin said of the celebration.
The public is invited to the lighting of a menorah in Medford at 6 p.m. Monday at the Vogel Plaza on the corner of South Central Avenue and West Main Street.
The Medford and Ashland menorahs will stay lit through the Hanukkah season.