DURANGO, COLORADO — The first day of Hanukkah brought dozens of Jewish people from around the Four Corners to the region’s only Jewish house of worship, Congregation Har Shalom in Durango, Colorado.

The eight-day celebration began the night of Dec. 22. It commemorates the victory of an ancient Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid Empire, which forbid Jews from practicing their religion.

Around 30 people — mostly older community members and parents with small children — gathered at the synagogue to play traditional Jewish games, eat holiday foods and celebrate the holiday.

“The spirit of Hanukkah is the spirit of persistence,” said Lisa Smith, the Spiritual Director of Congregation Har Shalom.

Congregation Har Shalom doesn’t have a rabbi, an ordained leader of Jewish services, but Smith’s role is similar to that of a rabbi.

“It’s also another reminder to speak out for your rights,” Smith said, “It’s a reminder to speak out for yourself, and to look out for those less fortunate.”

Why light a menorah?

The story of the miracle of oil is an important part of the celebration of Hanukkah.

After the successful revolution, religious leaders needed olive oil to light a once religiously-significant candelabra called a menorah. While they were only able to find enough oil to burn a candle for a single day, the story says that through a miracle the oil lasted long enough to light the candles for seven days.

Participants light candles on the menorah during Hanukkah, adding one candle each night for eight nights of the holiday to commemorate the miracle.

The menorah has come to symbolize the Hanukkah holiday much like a Christmas Tree symbolizes the Christmas holiday.   

Hanukkah food also commemorates the miracle of oil

People celebrating Hanukkah eat oily, fried foods like potato pancakes called latkes and deep-fried jelly donuts called sufganiyah to commemorate the miracle of the oil. Congregants at Congregation Har Shalom brought both foods to share with community members on the first night of the holiday.

“Presents and latkes and dreidels are my favorite part of Hanukkah,” said Lukas Bayer, 11, referring to a game where children spin a four sided top engraved with Hebrew letters for prizes of candy coins called gelt.

Some Jewish families give gifts to children and family members throughout the eight nights of the holiday.   

Nomsa Nocande and Gertrude Dandize came to Durango on vacation from Cape Town, South Africa, to visit their friend, a congregant at the synagogue, and experienced their first Hanukkah celebration at Congregation Har Shalom.

“The food is very nice,” Nocande said.   

Rivian Bell was one of the only Jews in her neighborhood growing up in Overland Park, Kansas in the 1950s. She reminisced about the Hanukkah celebrations of her youth while attending this year’s celebration at Congregation Har Shalom.

“I remember the food more than anything,” Bell said. “When I was growing up in the Midwest there was only Christmas. Hanukkah was our way to celebrate in the winter, and it’s one of the only happy Jewish holidays. You could be happy on Hanukkah, and I’m still happy on Hanukkah.”

Sam Ribakoff is a visual journalist for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-333-5283 or via email at

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