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Celebrating Chanukah in Arkansas


The Festival of Lights is a traditional Jewish holiday commemorating the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The holiday, called Hanukah and Chanukah interchangeably, marks the day the Maccabee stood up against religious oppression from the Greek and Roman authorities to take back the temple from pagan ruin. While traditionally celebrated near Christmas, the two religious holidays are different.

As the story goes, there was only enough oil to light one candle for the rededication service, yet the light continued to burn for eight nights of service and worship. During December, on eight days set by the Jewish calendar, the menorah, an eight-candle candelabra fashioned in a linear method, is lit as a daily reminder of light entering a dark world. The celebrations are a joyful time remembering God’s provision for the people. This year, Chanukah celebrations occur from sundown, Dec. 18 through sundown, Dec. 26.

Ways to Celebrate Chanukah

  • Light candles on the menorah
  • Eat latkes, potato pancakes fried in hot oil
  • Enjoy sufganiyot, a jelly doughnut fried in hot oil
  • Spinning a dreidel to win chocolate coins called gelt
  • Exchanging gifts
  • Music and dancing

For those who devoutly practice Judaism, lighting the menorah and celebrating these traditions is a cause to pause and remember the faith and perseverance of their ancestors. Using light as a source of strength, they recognize the pillars of their beliefs that God will provide for them. And, even when darkness is around us, there is still a source of light.

History of Jewish Families in Arkansas

Abraham Block was the first Jewish settler in Arkansas. While he came to the United States in the late 1700s, he did not settle in Washington, AR until 1825, establishing a large mercantile business from Southwest Arkansas to New Orleans and later into Houston, Texas. Block first settled in Richmond, Virginia, from Bohemia and married his wife, Fanny, in 1811, shortly before leaving for the War of 1812.

After the passing of his father-in-law, Block saw an opportunity for business in Southwest Arkansas. The Blocks lived a mostly isolated life as early Jewish settlers, and archeological studies in and around their home indicate they participated in several traditional Jewish celebrations. The Block home is on permanent display in Historic Washington State Park.

Despite small numbers, Arkansas Jews have been committed to preserving their family and faith traditions for centuries. By the time of the Civil War, growing German immigrant populations settled Jewish faith communities in Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, De Valls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville.

Following the war, merchant exchange opportunities grew, and more Jewish families migrated from larger towns like St. Louis, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Louisville, to fill in smaller rural parts of Arkansas. By 1839, a small group of Jews began to form religious groups and worshiped together in Little Rock. There are 14 towns in Arkansas founded by Jews or named for early Jewish settlers.  Throughout the late 1800s, many Jewish congregations were commissioned, with others tricking throughout the 1900s.  In 2004, the latest official congregation was added in Bentonville, officially spanning all portions of the state.

Events in Arkansas Celebrating Chanukah

Sunday, Dec. 18 | Annual lighting of the menorah with Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson | Little Rock

Arkansas’ Governor joins Jewish community leaders to light Arkansas’ largest menorah. This menorah at the corner of Chenal and Bowman in West Little Rock, near the Centennial Bank, will be lit each night during the Chanukah celebration. Join leaders for doughnuts, latkes, music and celebration from Dec. 18-26.

Sunday, December 18 – Monday, December 26 | Public menorah lighting at Lawrence Plaza | Bentonville

Each night the menorah will be lit near the ice skating rink in Lawrence Plaza near the Bentonville Square. Families are encouraged to participate in traditional blessings and prayers.

Monday, Dec. 19 | Lighting of the menorah with Mayor Pat McCabe | Hot Springs

A celebration lighting Hot Springs’ largest menorah with a public event along Central Avenue. Doughnuts, Latkes, gelt and music will complete the evening festivities. The community will light this menorah each evening throughout the Chanukah celebrations.

Monday, Dec. 19 | Lighting of the menorah at Fayetteville Towne Center | Fayetteville

A public menorah lighting celebration on the historic Fayetteville Square and the Towne Center, followed by a chocolate gelt drop.

Tuesday, Dec. 20 | Community Chanukah Celebration hosted by the Arkansas Jewish Center | Little Rock

An evening of traditional Jewish holiday celebrations, including latkes and classic Chanukah games. This family-friendly event is open to the public and welcomes new and faithful Judaism followers.

Wednesday, Dec. 21 | Hanukah Book and Cook | Little Rock

Read a traditional Hanukah story and cook a festive snack at the Central Arkansas Library; reservations are needed.

Friday, Dec. 23 | Menorah Lighting at Shabbat and Festive Oneg | United Hebrew Congregation, Fort Smith

Chanukah or Hanukah gives families an excellent opportunity to expand their understanding of other cultures and religions as we seek to overcome differences through knowledge and experience. If you are local to one of these events, we encourage you to support your Jewish neighbors and participate in public events. And, if you are not nearby, use the Arkansas Jewish Cultural Center guides to entertain conversation in your home about how different families celebrate the holidays.

Use this Hanukkah Holiday Guide, provided by Temple Shalom, to follow along and participate in the holiday.

Images used with permission from the Lubavitch of Arkansas.

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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in South Arkansas with her husband and sweet Boxer, Bailey and one-year-old son! Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now she is using all of those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom!

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