In the pantheon of religious holidays, Chanukah is a relatively minor one, said Rabbi Maralee Gordon of the Crystal Lake-based McHenry County Jewish Congregation.
“It was a minor holiday until the 20th century, in the U.S.,” Gordon said as some two dozen or so of the synagogue’s member families visited and chatted while children decorated Chanukah-themed cookies. The Festival of Light became more of a focus in the U.S. so that Jewish children would not feel left out as their Christian friends celebrated Christmas.
What the holiday does, said congregant Ellen Morton said, is bring the synagogue’s membership together as a community.
“Jewish kids tend to not be around other Jewish kids unless we create an opportunity.”— Ellen Morton, McHenry County Jewish Community member
“The holiday is secondary,” Morton said. “We love the community.”
She said she also enjoys the fact that an event focused on the children helps to bring them into the synagogue.
“Jewish kids tend to not be around other Jewish kids unless we create an opportunity” for them get together, she added.
There is a limited number of Jewish children for them to be around. Right now, there are only four children attending twice-monthly religious education classes at the synagogue on Ridgefield Road.
The McHenry County synagogue has been around since 1979. Each of those years, there has been some kind of Chanukah celebration at its location, board president Jonah Markowitz said. During COVID-19, that celebration was delivering latke - potato pancakes fried in oil - to members.
Markowitz also noted that there may be concerns about hosting celebrations while the Israel-Hamas war is raging in Gaza; they have not seen backlash or antisemitism against the local Jewish community.
But the synagogue also is being realistic about security and potential problems, increasing the number of video cameras on the property and asking McHenry County Sheriff Robb Tadelman for additional patrols in the area, Markowitz said.
Tadelman has been a member of the synagogue in the past, Markowitz said.
While it has been quiet for them, Gordon said, members of the congregation are mindful of the potential for issues. While the synagogue used to be unlocked, now there is a key code door lock for entry. “They need to either know the code or ring the bell” to enter, she said.
But there has never been any vandalism on the site, or frightening phone calls. “No, nothing like that,” Gordon said.
Personally, Gordon describes herself as both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Last year, she traveled to the West Bank with other rabbis, working with both Israelis and Palestinians to promote equality for Palestinian people.
But some leaders calling for the destruction of Israel is not right either, Gordon said.
They do feel safe in McHenry County, Markowitz said. The synagogue’s neighbors “could not be better” about helping to keep an eye on the building. They have also received “the kindest letter of support” from a nearby Christian church, offering their prayers and support.
“It gives a sense of hope when there is so much negativity,” Markowitz said.