A Grieving Pittsburgh Focuses On Community And Light In Hanukkah Celebrations

Dec 3, 2018
Originally published on December 3, 2018 8:22 am

The 9th annual "Latkepalooza" at Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh is open to families across the Jewish community.

There's plenty of fried food, face painting and carnival-style games.

Seventeen-year-old Ariel Holstein runs the putt-putt game. For him, the past five weeks have been intense. He says there was a lot to take in after police say a shooter killed 11 people at the nearby Tree of Life Synagogue in October.

"I went to all the vigils and I helped out, I helped set up," he said. "It was very heartbreaking and I thought we had to come together as a community."

Since the shooting, there have been youth-led events like rallies and prayer services. Young people have also been engaging in ongoing conversations with each other and in their classrooms about rising anti-Semitism.

Holstein said the dialogue has helped with the healing. But now, it's Hanukkah, the first major Jewish holiday since the shooting, and it's nice to take a break.

"I think this is the perfect activity right now," Holstein said. "Even on the shirts they wrote 'Peace, Love & Latkepalooza.' It's kind of a distraction from everything that's been going on. Enjoy some games."

Marissa Tait said a lot of the teens she works with felt like they needed a little normalcy, too. She's director of youth programming for Beth Shalom. She said while the older kids understood what was happening after the shooting, even the youngest picked up on the stressful atmosphere. Even though many adults are still reeling, she said, the kids have been resilient.

"I think it's really important to not transfer or project the adults' feelings onto the youth," Tait said. She said organizers made a conscious effort to bring only joy and lightness to the event, and not weave in any kind of difficult conversations.

Rebecca Elhassid brings her three young children to Latkepalooza every year. Hanukkah is a joyous time for her family. They join Jews across the world in spending eight days remembering the ancient rededication of their temple in Jerusalem after it was destroyed.

But she said the holiday feels different this year. "It's all about celebrating a victory of the past and the ongoing strength of the Jewish people and the survivability of the Jewish people, which especially now feels important," she said.

Elhassid continues to grapple with what happened at Tree of Life. But here, she said, it's comforting to be at a lighthearted event where members of all different Jewish denominations can come together. "We can focus on the holiday, or focus on the icing in our hair, and what's going to happen to our stomachs if we eat only fried food for three, four days in a row," she said.

Sharon and Rotem Guttman also worry about the tummy of their 2-year-old, Tal, who's won plenty of chocolate coins playing dreidel.

Rotem said Hanukkah is a great Jewish holiday because it's easy to observe. "You eat fried food, you have some donuts, you light some candles, you sing some songs and you open presents. It's just fun," he said.

Originally from Israel, Guttman said he's been exposed to many difficult situations throughout his life. He said children and adults alike are best served by moving forward.

"There's a time and a place for everything," Guttman said. "And we have to recognize when there's a tragedy and the way that it affects the community, but we also have to gather our things and move on, and continue living our lives. And that's exactly what I think we're doing here today."

Hanukkah festivals, parades and services across Pittsburgh this week are expected to be bigger than ever.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last evening was the first night of Hanukkah. For eight days, Jews celebrate the resilience of their faith. They recall an ancient story, a time they fought to reclaim and rededicate the site of their temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed. In Pittsburgh, it's a chance for people to rededicate themselves at the first major Jewish holiday since October, when a gunman killed worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Virginia Alvino Young reports from WESA.

VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG, BYLINE: The 9th annual Latkepalooza at Congregation Beth Shalom is open to families across the Jewish community. There's plenty of fried food, face painting and carnival-style games, including racing wind-up toys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Step right up for Hog Sameach for Beth Shalom's famous racing pigs. You can race them, but you can't eat them.

YOUNG: Running the putt-putt game is 17-year-old Ariel Holstein. For him, the past few weeks have been intense. He says there was a lot to take in after a shooter killed 11 people at nearby Tree of Life Synagogue.

ARIEL HOLSTEIN: Yeah. I went to all the - like, the vigils, and I helped out. I helped set up. It was very, like, heartbreaking. And I thought we had to come together as a community.

YOUNG: There were many youth-led events like rallies and prayer services. Young people have also been engaging in ongoing conversations about anti-Semitism at home, with each other and in their classrooms. Holstein says all that has helped with the healing. But now it's Hanukkah, and it's nice to take a break.

HOLSTEIN: I think this is the perfect activity right now. Especially, like, even on the shirts, they wrote, peace, love and Latkepalooza. It's, like, kind of a distraction from, like, everything that's been going on. Enjoy some games. Yeah.

YOUNG: Marissa Tait says a lot of the teens she works with felt like they needed a little normalcy, too. She's director of youth programming for Beth Shalom and says while the older kids understood what was happening after the shooting, even the youngest picked up on the stressful vibe. And although many adults are still reeling, she says the kids are resilient.

MARISSA TAIT: I think it's really important to not transfer or project the adults' feelings onto the youth.

YOUNG: She says organizers made a conscious effort to bring only joy and lightness to this event and not weave in any kind of trauma or more difficult conversations. Rebecca Elhassid brings her three young children to Latkepalooza every year. While Hanukkah is a joyous time for her family, she says the holiday feels different this year.

REBECCA ELHASSID: It's all about celebrating a victory of the past and sort of the ongoing strength of the Jewish people and the survivability of the Jewish people, which especially now feels important.

YOUNG: For Elhassid, she's continuing to grapple with what happened at Tree of Life. But today it's comforting to be at a lighthearted event where members of all different Jewish denominations can come together.

ELHASSID: Where we can focus on the holiday or focus on, you know, the icing in our hair and the - you know, what's going to happen to our stomachs if we eat only fried food for three, four days in a row (laughter).

YOUNG: Sharon and Rotem Guttman are also worried about their 2-year-old Tal's tummy, who's won plenty of chocolate coins playing the game dreidel.

TAL GUTTMAN: (Singing) Dreidel, dreidel.

YOUNG: Rotem Guttman says Hanukkah is a great Jewish holiday because, well, it's easy to observe.

ROTEM GUTTMAN: Hanukkah - you eat fried food. You have some doughnuts. You light some candles. You sing some songs. And you open presents. It's just fun.

YOUNG: Guttman is from Israel and says he's been exposed to a lot of difficult situations throughout his life. He says children and adults alike are best served by moving forward.

GUTTMAN: There's a time and a place for everything. And we have to recognize when there's a tragedy and the way that it affects the community. But we also have to gather up our things and move on. We have to continue living our lives. And that's exactly what I think we're doing here today.

YOUNG: Hanukkah festivals, parades and services across town this week are all expected to be bigger than ever. For NPR News, I'm Virginia Alvino Young in Pittsburgh.

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