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BOISE — More than 75 people gathered in the Capitol rotunda Monday evening for a Hanukkah celebration, including the lighting of a giant electric Hanukkah menorah, music and traditional foods including crispy fried latkes.

Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz of Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho, who conducted the ceremony, said, “The lighting of the menorah at the Capitol has become an annual tradition for people of all backgrounds and faith traditions. It is a testament to the loving and inclusive spirit of Idaho.”

Among Idaho dignitaries joining in the ceremony were Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise; 1st District Congressman Russ Fulcher; and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.

Bieter recalled participating in Idaho’s first Chabad menorah lighting a decade and a half ago, outdoors on a downtown street corner in the wind and cold.

“I’m glad we’ve come inside, Rabbi, in this beautiful building,” Bieter told Lifshitz. “It’s my honor to be here. I have a couple weeks left in my time here, and to be able to participate in this celebration one more time is indeed an honor to me.”

This year was the fifth that the ceremony has taken place in the Capitol rotunda.

“It keeps growing every year,” Lifshitz said.

Bieter said, “We need to always celebrate the welcoming nature of our community, and to make sure that that continues.”

Idaho has a long history of Jewish presence, and the state was among the first in the nation to elect a Jewish governor when Moses Alexander was elected in 1914. The state’s largest Jewish congregation, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, first formed as Beth Israel and opened its synagogue in 1896; the structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is still in use.

Several other communities in Idaho also have active Jewish communities.

Fulcher told the crowd that, as an evangelical Christian, the Jewish people are “extremely special” to him. He also said it was a life-changing experience for him to visit the Holocaust museum in Israel as a young businessman.

“When you see evil face-to-face, when you see that, it changes your life, and it gives you better cause to celebrate light over darkness,” he said. “I think all of us as leaders … we have a responsibility. Part of that responsibility is to make sure that our religious freedoms are kept intact. Part of our responsibility is to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.”

Chabad Lubavitch is an orthodox Jewish Chassidic movement with locations in more than 85 countries. The organization has a focus on outreach, including its public displays of giant Hanukkah menorahs, which are occurring this year in more than 15,000 locations in 100 countries and include several in Idaho.

Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, but has attained outsized importance in recent decades due in part to its timing, usually occurring near Christmas, the major Christian holiday that’s widely celebrated in the United States. Although the two holidays aren’t related, both include celebration, lights and often gift-giving.

Hanukkah celebrates the military victory of outmatched Jewish forces against Syrian Greeks who had forbidden the practice of the Jewish religion. After the battle, tradition says only one vial of undefiled, pure olive oil remained in the Temple in Jerusalem to kindle the menorah, but the menorah miraculously burned for eight nights. That’s now how long Hanukkah lasts.

Lifshitz told the crowd, “I have news for you, my friends: The miracle was not that the oil lasted for eight days. The miracle is that the oil has lasted for over 2,100 years.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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