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Elmont Jewish Center spreads the light on Hanukkah

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As the sun set on Dec. 22, dozens of Jewish residents huddled outside the Elmont Jewish Center to watch as Rabbi Chaim Blachman lit the first candle on the giant menorah to mark the first night of Hanukkah.

“When we stand in front of a menorah, that’s a big mitzvah,” he said, referring to the Jewish commandment to do a good deed.

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival marking the Maccabees successful rebellion against the Greek-Syrian King Antiochus IV. According to the Talmud, a supplemental Jewish text to the Torah, the ancient temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and there was only enough sacred oil to burn the menorah for one night, but it miraculously burned for eight nights.

“Hannukkah is a day of pride and showing Jewish pride,” which was more important this year, Blachman said, following a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City that left six people dead. “We could only find it with acts of kindness and goodness by showing the world that we are proud of our Jewishness from fulfilling God’s Torah,” Blachman explained to the crowd. ”Through that we will scare away our enemies, and they won’t be afraid to touch up because they will realize that we are God’s children.”

According to the Torah, the Jewish bible, the Jews are chosen to be in a covenant with God. “So each one of us, every Jew has a soul inside of him,” Blachman said, “and so you have to make sure to keep your soul enlightened and light up the world with your sold. Share it with your fellow Jews, share it with your fellow neighbors, show them how beautiful the light of [God] is, the light of Judaism is.”

One way to do so, he said, it to become more involved in the synagogue. The Elmont Jewish Center was founded in 1967, and had about 1,200 members at its peak. “At one point, we had a very, very vibrant congregation,” said Sandi Gerson, who became a member in 1968. “Most of us would be here two or three times a week.”

Over the years, however, the congregation aged and younger Jews moved away. There are still Jews in the community, Gerson, who works as a real estate agent in Elmont, noted, but now only 10 or 15 families are members of the Jewish Center.

Ten years ago, it struggled financially. Fortunately, the Orthodox Ohel Chabad Lubavitch Center in Cambria Heights, Queens, took it over and managed to keep the building open.

But they still need money to keep the place running. It has to be repainted, the ceiling needs to be retiled and the kiddush room, where guests ate kosher Chinese food and doughnuts on Dec. 22, needs to be completely renovated.

To help meet these needs, Orah Prenedergast, the vice president of building and grounds at the Elmont Jewish Center, formed a fundraising committee. She originally wanted to do the work herself, she said, remembering the lesson her parents taught her, “If you see something that needed to be done, don’t wait for someone else to do it. Do it yourself.” But when more members decided to help out, the committee was born.

At the Hanukkah celebration, they raffled off menorahs, a sign of a blessing for a house, children’s gifts and a scarf to raise money for the cause, and asked people to donate. “As we get the light of Hanukkah, we also need the ruach [spirit] to flow into each and everyone of us,” Prendergast said, “and that this shul continues to be a light to the community, a light to each person that walks in here.”