Asheville Marks the Festival of Lights

Families will arrive in Asheville by the carload on Dec. 16, but it’s not to Christmas shop.

They will come to celebrate the first night of another holiday — Hanukkah (also often spelled Chanukah) — at Chanukah Live, an event that since it began in 2006, has grown from nearly 150 to more than 400 people from throughout Western North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Sponsored by Chabad House of Asheville, the city’s largest Hanukkah event features children’s activities, food, musical performances and other entertainment and attractions for all ages. Also included are acrobat and magic shows, the Billy Jonas Musical Chanukah Show, an inflatable play area, Judah the Maccabi’s Dreidel House and holiday gift shopping.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer will light a 12-foot “Giving Menorah,” at the event, co-sponsored by members of the Asheville Jewish Leadership Collaborative and local Jewish synagogues and organizations. The Giving Menorah is constructed of thousands of coins raised during Chabad’s holiday giving drive to be donated to those in need in the community.

Chanukah Live “creates light, a metaphor for goodness, kindness, joy, and purpose, bringing the community together,” says Rabbi Shaya Susskind, executive director of Chabad House of Asheville. It gives Jewish people the “opportunity to be proud of their heritage and for non-Jews, it is a wonderful cultural experience as they gain a deeper appreciation of the depth of the Jewish faith and tradition, and enjoy a celebration with the Jewish community.”

Hanukkah, an eight-night Jewish holiday also called the Festival of Lights, recalls the victory more than 2,000 years ago in ancient Israel of a smaller Jewish army over the Syrians, who tried to prohibit religious freedom by restricting the Jewish way of life and desecrating their house of worship.

“Today, the holiday serves as a symbol and message of the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness,” says Susskind. “It reminds us that just a little bit of light can defeat an empire of darkness, human goodness can defy terror and force, and purposeful life and spiritual vitality can overcome destruction — a universal message that I feel we need now more than ever.”

Elizabeth Bernstein, of North Asheville, likes that the event offers a celebration of the Jewish holiday at a time “when there is so much attention given to Christmas.”

“I have appreciated that the Chanukah Live program includes some teaching about the holiday, in addition to the joy of music, good food, and community,” says Bernstein, a mother of three.

It’s vital to Susskind that Chanukah Live be open to the entire community, particularly because it shares “positive messages providing hope, inspiration, purpose and motivation that we can and should make a difference in the world around us,” he says, and can bring people of different faiths together.

“Differences in faith should not divide us or drive us apart; they should connect us and bring people together,” Susskind says. “I feel that we need more of that in today’s world and Chanukah Live is a place for just that.”

“Asheville’s Chanukah Live celebration is a great way to share winter holiday traditions and spirit, regardless of religious affiliation,” adds mom of two Lara Hume, of South Asheville. “The songs are uplifting, the kids’ activities are fun and the food is consistently delicious; we participate every year to reunite with community friends because it is the best Chanukah party in town.”

8 nights of celebration

The Jewish Community Center of Asheville also offers the chance to celebrate — and learn about - Hanukkah with others in the community, with candle lighting, songs, dreidels (spinning tops used to play a traditional Hanukkah game) and storytelling on each weeknight of Hanukkah, which this year runs Dec. 16-24. Professional song leaders Penny White and Seth Kellam and other guests also perform.

A potluck dinner and a children’s performance will be held Dec. 18 at the JCC, featuring latkes (potato pancakes) and other traditional Hanukkah food.

Each night the candles are lit on a menorah, a special Hanukkah candelabra. The candle-lighting events offer a more intimate way to join others in celebrating the holiday, with between 20 and 30 people, while nearly 300 people typically attend the larger dinner event, says Rochelle Reich, JCC community life and engagement coordinator.

Knowing that you’re part of something bigger is what makes celebrating and building community important, adds Reich. Nearly half the families who attend JCC programs are non-Jewish, but enjoy taking part and the feeling of community, she says.

Community Hanukkah celebrations are “not just an opportunity to pass along traditions, like lighting the Hanukkah menorah, playing dreidel, and eating latkes — they’re an opportunity to pass along our joy (to children) in the experience by preparing and taking part in them,” says Lauren Rosenfeld, religious school director at Congregation Beth HaTephila. “In doing that, we don’t just honor our Jewish past; we care for our future, which is what the celebration of Hanukkah is all about.”

New Hanukkah program

Hanukkah programming in Asheville isn’t limited to those events.

After Reich volunteered in her sons’ classes at Vance Elementary in West Asheville to teach about Hanukkah, the school asked her if she would go into other classrooms, as well.

Reich says she’s found there’s a need in the community for this kind of education, which also fulfills cultural curriculum requirements.

While the Center for Diversity Education in Asheville also provides programming in the schools related to Hanukkah as well as holidays of other cultures, they can book up quick, Reich adds.

So she started “Hanukkah in a Box” this year, connecting volunteers with area schools to teach kids who might not have heard of the holiday or, who often think of it as the “Jewish Christmas,” since both holidays fall around the same time.

School presentations are being held in five Asheville City and Buncombe County schools, with plans to expand to more in the future. Volunteers are equipped with boxes containing dreidels, story books, menorahs, song sheets and jelly donuts — a traditional Hanukkah food.

“It’s a short program just telling a little bit about what Hanukkah and its symbols are,” Reich says. “It’s a meaningful opportunity for volunteers and kids to talk about a story of miracles, paralleling the topic of anti-bullying.”


CommunityHanukkah events

Chanukah Live: 4:30-7:30 p.m. Dec. 16, Crowne Plaza Expo Center, 1 Resort Drive, Asheville. Free admission includes entertainment, menorah lighting and gift shopping. Kosher food court is $12/adult, $7/child. (Child combo bracelet, $12, includes food and additional attractions.) Billy Jonas Chanukah Show takes place at 5 p.m., and the Grand Menorah lighting ceremony will be at 6, followed by the acrobat show. Through Dec. 16, Chabad is accepting tax-deductible donations for charity. Chabad House of Asheville, 505-0746,


Community candle lighting and potluck: 5-7 p.m. Dec. 18, Asheville JCC, 236 Charlotte St., 253-0701. JCC children and staff perform classic holiday songs and comedy, latkes and beverages provided, guests bring a vegetarian or dairy dish to share.



Candle Lighting Songs and Ceremonies: 5:30-6:30 p.m. Dec. 16-19 and 22-23, Asheville JCC. Singing, candle lighting, dreidels, storytelling, and special community song leaders including Penny White, Seth Kellam and other guests.


Other local synagogues hold Hanukkah celebrations during the holiday and members often bring friends to join in the fun. For more information, contact:


Congregations Beth Israel, Asheville, 252-8660,;

Congregation Beth HaTephila, Asheville, 253-4911,;

Agudas Israel Congregation, Hendersonville, 693-9838,


Hanukkah in a Box: For more information on Hanukkah in a Box or to schedule a presentation, contact Rochelle Reich at the Asheville JCC, 253-0701, ext. 111, [email protected]. To volunteer, contact Natalie Kramer at 253-0701, ext. 140, and [email protected].