Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, who has been leading the state’s response to the COVID pandemic, was a featured guest at a Hanukkah celebration in Brunswick this week.

“This being Hanukkah — a holiday that celebrates resilience and perseverance and dedication as the name itself says — I can’t think of a holiday that more symbolically epitomizes the struggle that we’ve all been facing with respect to COVID,” Shah said. “But of course, Hanukkah also celebrates light, which is what we’re all hoping for at the end of this tunnel. That same resilience, perseverance and dedication that Hanukkah symbolizes are the same things that every single person in Maine has put to use as we’ve all been dealing with COVID in our separate and different ways.”

Shah is not Jewish, but lives in Brunswick and attended as part of the community.

The event was organized by the Chabad of Brunswick and were part of a large Hanukkah awareness campaign that was launched in 1973 by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. The Chabad-Lubavitch’s annual Hanukkah campaign this year, according to a news release, will reach 8 million Jews in more than 100 countries.

“The message of Hanukkah is very clear,” Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz said. “We got to be that candle of love, the candle of hope, the candle of inspiration, and to light up and inspire our families, ourselves and the people around us.”

According to David Freidenreich, a professor of Religious Studies at Colby College in Waterville, Jews have been in Maine since pre-revolutionary times, drawn by economic opportunities as well as political and religious freedom. Freidenreich said that those who arrived in Maine came primarily as peddlers, or door-to-door salespeople.

By the 1840s-50s, Jews had begun to create small organized communities, although it wasn’t until the 1870s that the first stable Jewish communities were established. Jews have been in the Brunswick-Bath region since at least the 1870s, Freidenreich said. The Beth Israel Congregation, a synagogue in Bath and the oldest on the Midcoast, will be celebrating its centennial next year.

Immigrating to Maine did not come without its challenges though.

“Some of the earliest evidence we have for Jews in the Midcoast region comes from people who are anti-semitic,” Freidenreich said.

One example, Freidenreich noted, is from a journal from a Bath missionary in the early 1900s, who had listed the names of every Jew in town in an effort to convert them to Christianity.

“For much of the 20th century Jews were not allowed to join certain social clubs, especially elite country clubs and the like,” said Freidenreich. “There was a sense that Jews weren’t welcome in the higher echelons of Maine society, because they were Jewish.”

Estimates show that between 1% and 1.8% of the 1.3 million people living in Maine are Jewish, according to the American Jewish Population Project by Brandies University.

According to Lefkowitz, the history of Hanukkah traces back to 2,000 years ago. The celebrations acknowledge the victory of a small Jewish army over the Syrian-Greeks who had overrun ancient Israel. After retaking the Temple, only one jar of oil was found, which was thought to be enough to light the menorah for one day, however, it miraculously lasted for eight, thus beginning the eight days of Hanukkah.

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