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Everybody welcome at Ahava ‘Aina Festival of Lights Hanukkah celebration in Hilo

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Rachel Short was a yoga teacher before she was a rabbi, so she is aware of the light everyone possesses inside and how that light is meant to be shared, especially during Hanukkah — a celebration of light and miracles.

This photo is from the 2021 Festival of Lights hosted by Rabbi Rachel Short and the congregation of Ahava ‘Aina. This year’s festival is planned for Dec. 18 at the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo. Photos by Kayla Smith/Orchid Isle Photography.

“From the miracle of Judah and the Maccabees defeating the Syrian army to the miracle of one night’s worth of oil burning for eight nights, Hanukkah is the celebration of the miraculous,” Short said. “We all have a light within, and when we come together as one, that light shines even stronger.”

The rabbi and the congregation of Ahava ‘Aina invite the Big Island to ignite that light together this weekend during the 2022 Festival of Lights in Hilo. The event begins at 4 p.m. Dec. 18 and will be hosted at the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo.

Short and Ahava ‘Aina are excited to share their Jewish tradition and culture with the community again this year. The celebration, which the congregation has hosted for more than five years, is open to all faiths, all beliefs, all ages and all beings.

“Ahava ‘Aina hosts this event to bring our community together in celebration of light, miracles and oneness,” Short said. “The intention is to share our culture with everyone in our community and invite everyone to celebrate Hanukkah.”

The is even more special because Hanukkah and Christmas overlap this year, something that doesn’t always happen. Hanukkah begins Dec. 18, the same night as the festival, and ends eight days later on Dec. 26.

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“I belive that in itself is deeply symbolic of the light we are meant to shine even brighter right now and how we are truly being called to come together as one,” Short said.

The festival promises a fun-filled evening with Aloha Mondays providing an assortment of Hanukkah treats with a twist, including latke bars featuring the traditional potato fritters and others made with taro and ulu courtesy of the Hawai‘i Ulu Co-op. There also will be tasty jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot.

Russell Ruderman and the Ahava ‘Aina Jewish Jam Band will entertain with live music. There also will be dreidel, arts and crafts, storytelling, keiki activities and more.

“One thing is guaranteed: you will have an amazing time,” Short said. “It’s Hanukkah. We’re celebrating a miracle.”

Ahava ‘Aina will also light the first candle of Hanukkah that night. If you have a menorah, bring it to light it with the community. If not, make your own at the festival to take home. Those who attend will ignite the light together and then take it to share and celebrate for the next seven nights of the Season of Light — and every moment beyond.

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“Whether you have attended many Hanukkah celebrations or this will be your first, you are guaranteed to have a memorable Hawaiian Hanukkah experience,” Short said.

The cost to attend is $55, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Keiki 5 years old and younger are free. The festival has been well-attended in the past, with more than 100 people turning out. Short hopes even more can join in the fun and experience this year.

There is a limit to the number of people who can attend. Tickets are available by clicking here.

The festival has a special place in Short’s heart. When she first arrived on the Big Island a decade ago, she didn’t have a community to share Hanukkah or Judaism with; she didn’t realize how much she missed connecting with the Jewish community until she didn’t have one. When she was ordained and became a rabbi, she couldn’t have imagined the way her community would come together and grow.

She believes her connection to the island and being here doing what she is doing is a miracle. Hanukkah is a celebration of miracles and light and she feels deeply connected to both concepts on a level to which she can’t even begin to put words.

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“The fact that we now have a regular Hanukkah celebration in Hilo and a menorah at the County of Hawai‘i Building is overwhelming for me,” Short said. “I believe there is a deep spiritual significance between Jewish and Hawaiian culture. … I know that this is much, much bigger than me.”

For those who are Jewish who attend the festival, she hopes they not only walk away being proud of who they are but also knowing they are part of of a people that has perservered and cultivated change throughout history. She hopes they leave the celebration with a stronger connection to Judaism and a desire to be more connected with their culture and community.

Short wants those who are not Jewish who attend to be able to experience Judaism and the inclusive loving space that it is and that she strives to create for all. She hopes they gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of Judaisum and can ignite their light and leave with a desire to shine a little brighter and share more.

Additional photos from the 2021 Festival of Lights.

“I also hope they leave wanting to help their Jewish ‘ohana as we continue to see anti-Semitism increase and need all the help and support we can get,” Short said, adding that it’s more important now than ever for Jewish people to share their culture and traditions with everyone. “Sharing my culture in a way that is inclusive for all is a dream come true. I believe this is how we combat anti-Semitism and heal our world.”

She said the festival is a testament to the miracle of Hanukkah.

“We need more light in these dark times and Ahava ‘Aina hopes to send the message that we are a community built on light, love and oneness — and that all are welcome,” Short said. “We are the light. Miracles still happen.”

Ahava ‘Aina is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to heal the world and build the first and only Jewish cultural community center and synagogue on the Big Island. For more information about the congregation, click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. His previous employment was at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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