“It’s better to light a candle, than curse the darkness,” is an ancient proverb that still rings true. Darkness can be oppressive this time of year. But there’s another kind of darkness that is worse than an absence of sunlight. It’s the growing darkness of antisemitism. On Nov. 28, at a gathering in Constitution Court, Forest Parkers united to light a candle to show we stand against antisemitism and prejudice against any ethnic group.

It was the village’s first public menorah lighting: signaling the beginning of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. One of the speakers, Sarah Van Loon, regional director of the American Jewish Committee Chicago, said Forest Park was the first municipality in Illinois to adopt the working definition of antisemitism, as expressed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

Simply stated, the IHRA defines antisemitism as a “perception of Jews expressed as hatred.” This hatred takes several forms, including blaming Jews for society’s problems, or accusing Jews of a vast conspiracy to control the world’s economy. Unfortunately, this kind of hate is on the rise, which made the menorah ceremony so meaningful.

Van Loon applauded Mayor Rory Hoskins for locally leading the charge against antisemitism. But Hoskins didn’t stop with Forest Park adopting the IHRA resolution. He persuaded members of the West Central Municipal Conference to adopt it. The conference includes 36 municipalities with 520,000 residents. Van Loon said it is the largest governmental group in the U.S. to adopt the IHRA’s teachings.

“Hate does not end with antisemitism,” Van Loon said. Her organization opposes hate against any ethnic group, including Asian-Americans, who were blamed by some for the pandemic. She believes Forest Park’s mayor has a heart for oppressed minorities.

Hoskins raised funds last year to purchase the municipal menorah. Rabbi Yitzhok Bergstein, who runs the Chabad Jewish Center in Oak Park, provided the menorah. It was erected on Madison Street last year but there was no public ceremony. This year, Rabbi Bergstein was the principal speaker at the event.

He recounted the origins of Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle that occurred when the Maccabees were battling a large force of Greeks attempting to destroy their religion. The Maccabees found a jug of oil to light their 6-foot menorah. The jug contained only enough oil to last one night but it miraculously burned for eight days. The eight-day Hanukkah holiday starts with one candle being lit at sundown of the first day.

Sundown was at 4:21 p.m., at which time Hoskins and Bergstein precariously perched to light the top candle. Another candle will be turned on each night of Hanukkah until the menorah is fully illuminated. Lighting candles is only part of the symbolism of Hanukkah. Rabbi Bergstein had brought plenty of “swag” to the ceremony.

This included sufganiyots, which are jelly donuts fried in oil, and gelt, chocolate coins for kids. Dreidels are spinning tops given to children for Hanukkah and the crowd sang and clapped along to the “Dreidel Song.” Bergstein also distributed literature and miniature menorahs. His 12-year-old sons, Yehoshua and Aliyahu passed out the swag. Six of his 12 children attended the ceremony. Several commissioners were present and Jessica Voogd gave a heartfelt speech.

Rabbi Bergstein was pleased by the turnout on a chilly evening. He believes that these public gatherings to celebrate Jewish faith are important because there have been antisemitic incidents in Oak Park and other local communities.

Van Loon was happy to see Jewish and non-Jewish residents gather at the menorah. She praised Forest Park for hosting the interfaith event and the village’s inclusivity.

“We show up for each other.”

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.