WATERVILLE — Though Hanukkah is an annual celebration of a festival of lights, the last few months have felt dim for many. That’s why Rabbi Rachel Isaacs said the Beth Israel Synagogue’s Hanukkah celebration Sunday evening was an especially important one.

Isaacs said she organized the congregation’s Hanukkah celebration to stand in bright contrast with the darkness of the world around it.

Hanukkah began on Thursday, exactly two months after an unprecedented terrorist attack on Israel that claimed 1,300 lives and launched a war that has since killed thousands of innocent Israelis and Palestinians. Over those two months, antisemitic threats and hate crimes have risen dramatically all across the country, but particularly in Maine, prompting Jewish leaders across the state to heighten their security.

Nandi Ngidi-Brown, 3, holds a candle Sunday as she takes part in the lighting of Menorahs during the Hanukkah celebration at Beth Israel Congregation synagogue in Waterville. About 125 people attended the party. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“There’s a lot of fear around antisemitism in this country, around the welfare of hostages, around all of the innocent life that has been lost,” Isaacs said Sunday. “Still, I feel grateful that our tradition compels us and encourages us in lighting a candle in this darkness. This is a time for joy and light.”

Families arrived at the synagogue by the dozens, many bringing baked goods, soups, and other dishes to share while children worked on puzzles, spun dreidels with their friends, and practiced striking matches before the menorah lighting later in the evening.

One man, who gave his name only as Austin, brought maple sugar sufganiyot, or as he joked, “a Jewish donut you won’t find anywhere but in Maine.” Austin and his family drove more than an hour from their house in Franklin County to attend the event and said that this year’s Hanukkah celebration left him with a sense of resolve.

“It really shows how important the community is here,” he said. “People come from all over. The world in general is just so dark right now, but there is light in this room. We need this community.”

The turnout far exceeded the 80 to 90 people Isaacs said she was initially expecting, as more than 100 members of central Maine’s Jewish community gathered at the 291 Main St. synagogue. Isaacs said she and the event’s organizers had invited attendees of various faiths to the event, aiming to encourage a sense of local community.

“We invited the entire community to join us — not just the Jewish community — so that everybody feels supported and loved,” she said. “Whenever there’s fear, there’s always a temptation to hide in the shadows. We’re not doing that here.”

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