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'Light defeated darkness. It will be the same this time'

Ukraine Jews mark Festival of Lights as Kyiv’s skies darkened by Russian strikes

Dozens gather at square in capital for Hanukkah, where local Jewish leaders light what is said to be Europe’s tallest menorah, in defiant message 10 months into punishing war

Members of the Jewish community stand by a giant menorah as they attend a ceremony for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, during blackout, on December 18, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP)
Members of the Jewish community stand by a giant menorah as they attend a ceremony for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, during blackout, on December 18, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Jews in Ukraine waging a “war between darkness and light” lit a giant menorah on Sunday night to start the eight-day Hanukkah holiday, as tens of thousands remained without electricity and Russia’s nearly 10-month war produced new victims.

Dozens gathered in Maidan Independence Square in the capital, Kyiv, at sundown for the lighting of the first candle of what local Jewish leaders say is Europe’s tallest menorah. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko joined ambassadors from Israel, the United States, Japan, Poland, Canada, and France in a ceremony organized by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine.

They sang blessings under the flames of the menorah, which towered over the crowd and passing cars in frigid weather.

Rabbi Mayer Stambler, a leader of Ukraine’s Jewish community, drew parallels to the story of Hanukkah, an eight-day commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees after their victory over the Syrians, more than 2,000 years ago.

When only enough oil was available to keep the Temple candles lit for one day and night, the oil inexplicably burned for eight days and eight nights — a feat now celebrated as the Jewish Festival of Lights.

“We are actually now living through the same situation,” said Stambler, drawing a parallel with the current blackouts in Ukraine that Russian bombardments have caused. “This is a war between darkness and light.”

Ukrainian soldiers rest near their position in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, December 17, 2022. (AP Photo/ LIBKOS)

In congratulating the world’s Jews on Hanukkah, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, also noted the holiday’s inspiration for his people.

“Those who were fewer defeated those who were more. Light defeated darkness. It will be the same this time,” he vowed in a video address late Sunday.

Among those watching was 47-year-old Viktoria Herman, who said the festival of lights brought her hope during the December days with the least sunlight of the year.

“There will be light and everything will be fine for everyone. And finally the war will end,” she said.

The Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, said: “I wish for the people of Ukraine all of that which Hanukkah symbolizes. I wish there was light on every Ukrainian house… and I wish you victory.”

Volunteers distributed thousands of menorahs, candles, printed materials, family puzzle games, and sweets for the holiday to members of Ukraine’s Jewish minority population.

With the holiday symbolism as a backdrop, Ukraine’s state-owned power grid operator Ukrenergo said Sunday electricity restoration work from Russian missile damage was continuing. It said the volume of electricity consumption increased compared to Saturday, due to falling temperatures.

Zelensky reported that power had been restored Sunday to 3 million Ukrainians, on top of 6 million the day before.

On the battlefield, Russian military forces on Sunday shelled the center of Kherson, the major city that Russian soldiers retreated from last month in one of Moscow’s biggest battlefield setbacks in Ukraine.

Three people were wounded in the attacks, said presidential deputy chief of staff Kyrylo Tymoshenko.

People attend a ceremony for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at the Kharkiv Choral Synagogue in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, on December 18, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Sergey BOBOK / AFP)

The southern city and its surrounding region have come under frequent attack since the Russian pullback. Regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said Sunday that Russia had carried out 54 attacks with rocket, mortar, and tank fire over the previous day, killing three people and wounding six.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the governor of the Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said Sunday that one person was killed and eight wounded in Ukrainian shelling of the region, which lies along Ukraine’s northern border.

In the latest phase of the war, Moscow’s forces have been heavily targeting infrastructure serving civilians, such as water and electricity supply lines, compounding Ukrainians’ suffering as winter approaches.

Zelensky used the final of the soccer World Cup to decry war.

“This World Cup proved time and again that different countries and different nationalities can decide who is the strongest in fair play, but not in the playing with fire — on the green playing field, not on the red battlefield,” Zelensky said, in an English video statement released hours before Argentina beat France 4-2 in a penalty shootout

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