How a war thousands of miles away is changing the way some Americans celebrate Hanukkah

Jean Joachim’s menorah has been sitting in the window of her first-floor New York City apartment for more than a decade.

She loves lighting it every year on Hanukkah, and even when the holiday has passed, she keeps it on display. The gold-colored candelabra is a family heirloom. “It’s not so pretty anymore, but I guess it’s sturdy and still works,” she says with a laugh, “sort of like me.”

But a few weeks ago, the 75-year-old romance writer had a sobering realization. She caught a glimpse of the menorah from across her kitchen, and she did something she never imagined she’d have to: She moved it inside, where only she can see it.

“I didn’t want to put myself at risk,” she says. “I feel bad about it. But I think you have to be practical and see what’s happening these days and protect yourself.”

Across the country in Seattle, Richard Sills is doing something he’s never done as an adult.

It’s been decades since his family kept a menorah in the window when he was a boy. This year, for the first time, the 70-year-old decided to display one in the window of his own home.

“I want to stand up for my heritage … and for all Jews,” he says. “I want to do the opposite of hide.”

CNN recently asked Jews in the US and around the world how the Israel-Hamas war was affecting their lives and whether rising antisemitism was changing the way they planned to celebrate Hanukkah this year. Hundreds responded, including Joachim and Sills, sharing deeply personal reflections on their lives, fears they’re facing and how the situation is shaping their celebration of the eight-night Jewish “Festival of Lights” that begins today at sundown.

Hearing protesters’ chants left him shaken. This is one way he’s speaking out

The story behind the Hanukkah menorah’s candles unfolded thousands of years ago, during the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem around 165 BC. The temple had only enough oil to light the menorah for one night, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight.

And to Sills and many others, the candelabra has come to symbolize even more.

He’s long known about the tradition of placing Hanukkah menorahs in windows during the holiday. But he never felt it was something he needed to do as an adult – until now.

“My feelings have changed about Hanukkah a little bit this year,” he says.

how a war thousands of miles away is changing the way some americans celebrate hanukkah

Richard Sills says a blessing as he lights the menorah in his Seattle home. – Courtesy Richard Sills

Sills says he was shaken by antisemitic chants and signs during recent protests on the streets of Seattle. And news that someone sent suspicious packages with white powder to synagogues in the area was also chilling.

“It does hit close to home,” Sills says. “But it makes me more determined not to hide, not to be afraid but to stand with all my Jewish family around the world.”

With so many things out of his control, Sills says he finds strength in his decision to place a menorah in the window.

“It’s empowering,” he says.

She wants to honor her family. But she doesn’t want her new home to be a target

In a matter of weeks in October, so many things changed for Sara Katz.

She moved to a new neighborhood with her fiancé, her grandmother died and war broke out in the Middle East.

The 25-year-old, who lives outside Baltimore and works at a veterinary clinic, had already been thinking a lot about her Jewish roots. Now, she says, everything is intensifying.

“This is the first year that I don’t have either of my grandparents. And it’s the year I’m starting to explore Judaism itself in my life,” she says.

Katz says she treasures the heirlooms she inherited, like a carved wooden dreidel, the family torah and an ornate menorah. And she wants to honor her family’s heritage.

how a war thousands of miles away is changing the way some americans celebrate hanukkah

Sara Katz displays various heirlooms such as hand-carved dreidels, a family torah and ornate menorahs. – Courtesy Sara Katz

She had plans to go all-out for Hanukkah this year. She wanted to put blue and white lights on the balcony and festive decals on the windows.

But now, she says, she’s too afraid of drawing unwanted attention. Even living in a largely Jewish neighborhood hasn’t made her feel safer. She sees the synagogue nearby and worries outward displays of faith would make their home a target, too, if someone decides to attack the synagogue and spots signs of Judaism represented in their window down the street.

It’s a painful realization, Katz says.

“And it doesn’t just hurt for me. I hurt for the Palestinian and Muslim communities, too. … If you look back at both of our cultures’ histories, we don’t have an easy time. It’s filled with a lot of war and a lot of bloodshed and slavery and all these terrible things,” Katz says. “I don’t see the point in it. I don’t see the point in why we all have to make each other hurt.”

For now, Katz has put the menorah and dreidels on display inside her house.

She hopes next year the world will feel safer so she can share their beauty with her neighbors, too.

This rabbi’s Hanukkah philosophy: ‘Bigger is better.’ He says this year is no exception

Rabbi Shalom Kantor says no one in his congregation at B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, Michigan, has come to him with any concerns about celebrating Hanukkah this year.

One reason for that, he says, may be because when it comes to the holiday, Kantor has a well-known philosophy: “Bigger is better.”

The idea of “publicizing the miracle” of Hanukkah by lighting the menorah in a place where others can see it, Kantor says, is rooted in the Talmud. In some communities, it’s common for people to light menorahs on the steps of their homes. In the US, placing menorahs in windows is more common.

Kantor takes things even further.

He puts a large menorah with tiki torch candles on the lawn of his home. He’s also been known to pull one along in a trailer behind a pickup truck as part of a neighborhood parade.

how a war thousands of miles away is changing the way some americans celebrate hanukkah

Rabbi Shalom Kantor looks at the large menorah in front of his Michigan home. – Courtesy Rabbi Shalom Kantor

This year, like every year, he sees a vitally important message in the holiday and the way it’s celebrated.

“The more light we have, even just a little sliver of light can drive away darkness. The little flickering light, it makes people realize that there’s hope, that there’s goodness,” he says.

And to Kantor, the rise in antisemitism makes that all the more important.

“In a time when Jews are feeling nervous about outwardly expressing their identity, when they’re fearful for their safety in public communal spaces, this is an opportunity for us to stand up and to be proud of who we are, proud of what we bring to the world, proud of our contributions to the world and to the United States.”

His daughter asked him a question he wasn’t expecting

Scott Howard grew up in a multicultural community. And the 45-year-old, who works in sales, says he takes pride in raising his kids to appreciate diversity.

They’re an interfaith family. And when the holiday season rolls around, they have inflatable decorations celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah on their lawn outside Chicago.

This year, Howard says his 12-year-old daughter, who’d always loved the display, asked him a question he wasn’t expecting: “Should we not put up our Hanukkah decorations this year?”

He quickly reassured her, but it gave him pause.

“It was kind of a reflective moment and a sad moment to hear from a 12-year-old, who is still kind of innocent and pure, her thinking about the world,” he says.

Howard thought about his ancestors, and about his not-so-distant relatives, too. He also thought about Arab friends he’d grown up with and the discrimination they’d faced. “This is what they had to deal with,” he thought.

Howard says he told his daughter she should be proud of her identity.

“We’re a culmination of generations of family members that lived meaningful lives so we could be here and be who we are today. Whether someone is Jewish, Arab, Black, gay or anything else,” he said, “they should be who they are and should not be worried to be themselves.”

Last week, they put the inflatable menorah on their lawn once again.

how a war thousands of miles away is changing the way some americans celebrate hanukkah

Christmas and Hanukkah decorations are seen in Scott Howard’s yard outside Chicago. – Courtesy Scott Howard

She remembers the antisemitism of her childhood. This moment feels more threatening

Jean Joachim says antisemitism was an ever-present specter looming over her youth.

“Where I lived, all the country clubs except one didn’t accept Jews. There were kids who weren’t allowed to come over to my house, boys who wouldn’t go out with me,” she recalls.

But as tough as those days were, she says, now things feel even worse.

“It certainly wasn’t pleasant when I was growing up. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t like you were afraid. There wasn’t all this hostility,” Joachim says.

For years she’d kept her family menorah in the same spot on her windowsill on New York’s Upper West Side – even when Hanukkah was over, she says, “because how many spaces do apartment people have?”

how a war thousands of miles away is changing the way some americans celebrate hanukkah

Jean Joachim stands with her menorah near a closed window in the kitchen of her New York home. – Courtesy Jean C. Joachim

But between the rising political polarization in the US in recent years and growing reports of antisemitism after the October 7 attacks in Israel, moving the menorah felt like a necessary step.

“While there are many Jews in my neighborhood, one never knows when someone who hates Jews will be walking by, see the lights burning, and decide to extinguish them with a rock or a gun,” Joachim wrote in a response to CNN. “So I decided that, while I am very proud to be a Jew, it made no sense to make myself a target of hate during these trying times. This makes me sad. But protecting myself is important for me and my family. So I do what I have to do.”

Joachim says this doesn’t mean her faith is faltering. In fact, her commitment to lighting the menorah this year is even deeper.

“I think I’ll feel a little more defiant as I say the prayers and light the lights,” she says. “I may be practical, but I’m not going to be scared out of celebrating my own religious holidays.”

And even with her kitchen curtains drawn, the menorah’s light will still shine through the window.

CNN’s Alexandra Gilwit contributed to this report.

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