A 500-year-old Chanukah custom among Syrian Jews was observed in Washington at the holiday’s conclusion to draw attention to the plight of Syrian refugees escaping from the civil war in that Middle East country.
About 70 people attended the event, sponsored by the group Sephardic Heritage in DC (SHINDC) and held at Shalom House. It mixed Syrian Chanukah food with activism on behalf of the refugees. The United Nations estimates that 3 million Syrians had fled their country by the end of 2014.
“We’re coming to this from a humanitarian perspective,” said Franz Afraim Katzir, founding director of SHINDC.
Syria was one of the lands where Jews took refuge after they were expelled from Spain in 1492, he said. It became a custom among some Syrian Jews to light an extra candle each night of the holiday to commemorate their deliverance.
“I’ve been told that in Aleppo [Syria] there were chanukiyot [Chanukah menorahs] with two shamashim [helper flames] instead of one,” Katzir said.
This year, the group wanted to return the favor by advocating for Syrian refugees. They heard from Qutaiba Idlibi and Hala Khalouf, two Syrians who had run afoul of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Shlomo Bolts, policy and advocacy officer for the Syrian American Council, discussed the history of Jewish-Syrian comity.
The event attracted Jews, Christians and Muslims, including those with “hijabs and no hijabs, and kippot and no kippot,” Katzir said.
The group posted a petition online calling on the U.S. government “to do more to help alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis and the crisis in Syria,” to “dramatically expand and facilitate refugee resettlement” here, to increase humanitarian aid to countries in the Middle East and to work with allies to create safe zones in northern and southern Syria.