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A Grieving Pittsburgh Focuses On Community And Light In Hanukkah Celebrations

At Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, families across the Jewish community will gather at the annual "Latkepalooza" to mark their first Hanukkuh since the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in October.
Alan Freed
At Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, families across the Jewish community will gather at the annual "Latkepalooza" to mark their first Hanukkuh since the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in October.

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.

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Virginia Alvino Young