Chanukah event connects refugee experience from 1492 to today

Syrian-born opera singer Lubana al Quntar sang for more than 100 people at a Chanukah event at Adas Israel Congregation to raise awareness about the Syrian refugee crisis. Photo by Dan Schere.

A Chanukah celebration linked Sephardic observance of the holiday with the plight of Syrian refugees who have fled that country’s nearly 6-year-old civil war.

The Dec. 28 event, held at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington and organized by Sephardic Heritage in D.C. (SHINDC), featured a performance by Syrian-born opera singer Lubana al Quntar. It also included lighting an extra flame, a custom that dates back to the expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492, according to Franz Afraim Katzir, the organization’s founder.

“Almost overnight in the Iberian Peninsula, you had about 800,000 Sephardic refugees who sought refuge the world over, including about 50,000 in tents on the Portuguese side of the border,” Katzir told the more than 100 people attending.

Katzir said these refugees eventually arrived in Aleppo, now in Syria, and took up the extra flame tradition to commemorate their safe arrival.

“It’s not easy to institute new customs like this in Judaism, but they did so because they didn’t want us to forget that Aleppo became a city of refuge for them,” Katzir said.

The Syrian government recaptured the rebel-held part of Aleppo last month. The battle was the latest in a civil war that has forced almost 5 million people to flee the country in addition to the 6 million who are internally displaced, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Franz Afraim Katzir of Sephardic Heritage in D.C. lights the menorah for Chanukah’s fifth night. The lighting included an extra flame, following a Sephardic tradition. Photo by Daniel Schere.
Franz Afraim Katzir of Sephardic Heritage in D.C. lights the menorah for Chanukah’s fifth night. The lighting included an extra flame, following a Sephardic tradition. Photo by Dan Schere.

Katzir noted that the war has almost entirely displaced Syria’s Jewish population. He and others at the event expressed the same hope for today’s refugees that Sephardic Jews found in Aleppo more than 500 years ago.

“Today we stand with those who have suffered. We stand with Syrian refugees,” he said. “Chanukah’s extra flame represents security, tolerance and brotherhood.”

Al Quntar performed a combination of Arabic songs and poems accompanied by musicians playing the oud, tambourine and qanun. Much of the music was upbeat, but al Quntar’s final two sings were melancholy, and she performed them solo.

Isaac Flegel-Mishlove, of the Jewish refugee aid organization HIAS, said that aiding Syrian refugees should be a Jewish concern.

“Given the magnitude of the crisis right now, and the political climate that has made it very difficult for refugees right now, it’s more important than ever that we stand up as Jews for the most vulnerable refugees, because we know our people were refugees too,” Flegel-Mishlove said.

Shlomo Bolts, policy and advocacy officer at the Syrian American Council, said he hopes the American Jewish community stands up for the current refugees, just as others have stood up for Jews in the past.

“This holiday more than any other is a holiday for dark times,” he said. “It’s a holiday about never giving up hope, and the situation in Jerusalem before the Chanukah miracle wasn’t so different from the situation in Aleppo or a lot of other cities we see today.”

A number of attendees said they have family still in Syria. Salim, 29, who asked to only use his first name due to family concerns, said that Jews, because of their experience as refugees, are in a unique position to help.

“They historically have had the refugee experience and Aleppo was a home that really accepted them. … It just goes to show that it must have been a desperate, desperate situation.”

Ayat, 21, who also requested that her last name not be published, said she was moved by al Quntar’s performance.

“It was amazing to see such an incredible performance from Syria,” she said. “I’m also from Syria, and to see such a talented person come here and show that talent to all of us is really inspiring and is a good reminder that we should humanize all of these people who are coming here.”

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