If there's a religious holiday that seems to encourage letting your hair down, it must be Hanukkah. At least that's how things looked over at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center.
They've clearly handed this one over to the kids. Wednesday was the children's Hanukkah party, and in between lighting the menorah and singing songs, the guiding force was a happy form of chaos. Unlike some other houses of worship, kids here are not shunted off to some basement room.
"This is a real kids' holiday," said Lori Herman, a parent and Hebrew Center board member. "A lot of holidays are more serious and prayerful. This one celebrates a great victory and miracle."
But the emphasis on youth is not limited to just Hanukkah. A huge and colorful picture of Jonah and the whale, painted by the children for Yom Kippur, is even framed and hanging right in the main hall.
Kids could well be the main ingredient in the fast-growing congregation that has seen membership jump from just 130 families in 1997 to 350 today. Almost 60 children attend the weekly religious school at the center.
"How else are they going to have an identity if we don't start them young?" asked Ms. Herman. "When you're a minority in a majority culture, if you don't stress it with kids, they feel outside."
Ms. Herman said she was planning to take jelly donuts to her child's kindergarten class at the Edgartown School to give them a taste of how Hanukkah is done in Israel. The food focus, she said, is anything that's fried and sweet.
At the Hebrew Center's party, the smell of potato latkes filled the rooms and hallways. Shawn Roseman, a parent and a skilled caterer, taught a kitchen full of kids the finer points of making these pancake-like treats. Teenager Evan Kendall battled teary eyes as he peeled onions, while Oliver Osnoss, 10, manned the food processor, blending potatoes and onions.
Lots of onions, the chef said, keep the potato from turning black. Instead of flour, he added, try a little matzoh.
As the assembly line churned out the latkes, a steady stream of kids came drifting into the kitchen for a taste.
The younger ones were spinning the dreidel, hoping that the four-to-one odds would land them a fistful of M&Ms. Alexandra Schoenfeld, 16, had been put in charge of this mini-casino, and she had her hands full keeping track of the rules. But the kids were happy to offer pointers.
Earlier in the main hall, they had all gathered with musician Sara Piazza to sing Hanukkah songs while sound technician John Rogers taped the tunes. Peter Simon plans to play some of the songs on the weekly radio show he deejays on WMVY, Sunday night between 8 and 9 p.m.
The performance pressure was ratcheted up as both Mr. Simon and Mr. Rogers urged the young choir to give it their all to some of the bouncy songs, singing of "eight days and eight happy nights, to celebrate the festival of lights."
"Hanukkah," as the eager, nine-year-old Michael Kendall explained, "is a holiday celebrating that the temple in Jerusalem had oil enough to light the light for one day but it lasted for eight days."
Gift-giving is a part of Hanukkah, but it's the miracle aspect that seemed to fascinate the children. To Phoebe Hersh, 10, this is the time of year for "families to come together and celebrate miracles."
And Maxwell Nunes, 10, taking note of the world beyond the Hebrew Center and the Island, added, "That's what we need right now."