Tonight at 7, members of Kol Ami Temple will join millions of Jews worldwide to light the menorah, celebrating Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
The ceremony marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. There was only enough oil to fuel the "ner tamid," the eternal light, for one day. But the light burned for eight days, the time needed to press and consecrate new olive oil for the lamps.
For members of the Kol Ami Temple, the light has added significance. It has been almost 50 years since there has been a Hanukkah service at a York County temple. The Kol Ami temple will meet at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, 229 Munn Road, Fort Mill.
For years, many Jews traveled to either Charlotte or Gastonia, N.C., for services. Others who moved to the area quietly held their faith. Some, especially interfaith couples, were more removed, wondering which heritage to honor.
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The Kol Ami Temple - the name means "temple for all my people" - connected with local Jews. Their light and faith has come out of the darkness and into public view. It is a journey, like most religious ones, that is full of tests and trials. And through grace, sacrifice and hard work, the journey continues.
When Jonathan Shaw moved to the area four years ago from Arizona, his family felt like they were the only Jews in York County. They went to temple in Charlotte and finally settled on services in Gastonia.
After a Gastonia service in January, Shaw talked with rabbinical student Jonathan Cohen, also a resident of Lake Wylie.
They wondered if they could get enough people to form a minyon, a 10-member prayer group. Maybe they could get enough people for a chavurah, a larger study group.
A notice was placed in the Charlotte Jewish News to see if there was interest in York County.
One, two, five, 10, 20 - the responses started rolling in.
An April meeting was held to gauge interest. Fifty people came, Shaw said, "and they all realized they had similar stories. They were thinking they were the only Jewish people here."
With Cohen as their spiritual leader, the group held its first service June 4. They put out chairs for 75 people. The chairs filled up and organizers quickly went about adding row after row to accommodate the 160 who came that day.
Cohen found a group that was spiritually "starving."
Their faith was backed by a tremendous can-do attitude, and the Kol Ami Temple decided to celebrate the high holy days of Rosh Hashana, Sept. 8, and Yom Kippur, Sept. 17.
Normally, it takes temples a year to plan the celebrations. The members of Kol Ami had weeks and lacked almost every essential. They did not have a place to worship. They did not have prayer books or a Torah and they lacked leadership to perform the services.
Temple members sought solutions. A place was secured for the worship ceremonies. A temple in New York donated old prayer books. The Gastonia temple lent them a torah.
"Every hurdle we have been given, we have jumped," Shaw said. "We have been tested."
Open to all
Stan Smith is one of the several interfaith families who attend Kol Ami. He likes the temple because it is unaffiliated, open to all members of the Jewish faith. For interfaith couples, the temple is a chance to be exposed to traditions. "It is religion for people who feel left out," he said. "We are a synagogue for the new South."
"We are keeping the light going," he said. "We are lighting the way for the next generation. There will be light for my grandchildren; that's one reason I joined."
Sarah Ackerman remembers when she and her husband, George, arrived in Fort Mill. "It was 1952, and there were only two Jewish families." Her husband was a cantor and Hebrew teacher at the Rock Hill temple on West Main Street. She has been worshipping at Temple Israel in Charlotte since 1952, but has attended recent Kol Ami services.
"It's wonderful there are so many young people and young children at Kol Ami," she said. She said the increase in the number of Jewish families in the area is remarkable, as is the respect the community has for all religions.
"I wish my father was alive to see this, 100 Jews worshipping here. He would have been amazed and pleased," said Bernard Ackerman.
Cohen will come from Miami Beach, where he is the executive director for Temple Emanuel, for tonight's service. He splits his time between the two temples and his rabbinical studies. He has completed two years of a five-year study with the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
His message tonight will be about being people of action. He already knows he has a congregation of doers. He wants to challenge them to act both internally and externally. He and Shaw are proud of external efforts such as the Toys for Tots drive, food donations and a school supply collection. Now, it is time to take on bigger efforts.
"People need to take a stance in the world," Cohen said. "All people, people of every faith, need to be active in repairing a damaged world. This is the way of creating unity among people."
Want to go?
The Kol Ami temple meets at 7 tonight at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, 229 Munn Road, Fort Mill. There will be a community menorah lighting, so bring your menorah and candles.