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People watch as the first light of the Hanukkiah is turned on outside Har Shalom in Missoula on Tuesday. The evening marked the first of eight nights of celebrating Hanukkah, and Har Shalom will host a special night of celebration on Saturday.

Despite sub-freezing temperatures, around 30 people attended a celebration for lighting the first candle of the Hanukkah holiday Tuesday evening at Missoula's Har Shalom.

Led by spiritual leader and rabbinic intern Laurie Franklin, the group said three blessings and sang a Hanukkah song before "lighting" the first candle on the Hanukkiah, also known as a menorah. The nine-foot tall, custom-made Hanukkiah was built by a group of Missoula College welding students in 2014 and has lightbulbs instead of candles adorned at the top of each prong. 

Franklin said the holiday takes her back to her childhood.

"For me personally, I'm a 5-year-old again sitting in my parents' house looking at the candles glowing in the dark, which is just magical," Franklin said. "I love the magic of the lit candles."

She added that while some families trade gifts over the holiday's eight days and nights, that wasn't the case in her parent's household. 

"We just enjoyed each other's company," she said.

The eight days of Hanukkah commemorate the miracle of a single day's supply of oil that last for eight days when the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated in the year 165 BC. There is a custom of eating foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes, because of the oil of the temple lamp. 

Naomi Kuznia-Leyb traveled from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to be with her close friends who moved to Missoula over the summer. 

"Hanukkah is family. It's all about being close to the people who mean the most to me," Kuznia-Leyb said. "It's about gathering around everyone you love, holding them close and being thankful you made it through another season." 

Along with her friend, she said she prepares for the week by buying a lot of potatoes and oil because it's in the spirit of the holiday. 

Among the crowd was the pastor at Grace United Methodist Church, Tim Scranton, who said that Hanukkah is a celebration that reminds us that light continues to shine in darkness. It's important that different religions understand one another, he added.

"All of the early folks of my faith were Jews and so if I don't understand that context, I don't really understand what they were writing or saying or believing," Scranton said. "That's why I bring my kids to things like this because I want them to understand that not everybody believes the same things we do or practices their faith the same way we do, but yet there is a unity underneath it all."

That unity and solidarity was on display over the past year, Franklin said, after anti-Semitic propaganda was found around Missoula and parts of western Montana. But she said we're not out of the woods yet.

"I actually think we need to double down and work against white nationalism, which is a political philosophy that is bent on ethnic cleansing and it doesn't do anybody any good," she said. "As a Jew, I know that anti-Semitism is a rallying cry and a recruiting cry for that crew."

While she said there is still a lot of work to do, she remains positive the white nationalist movement can be countered. 

Lighting of the Hanukkiah will continue each night this week at 5:30 p.m. at the Missoula Har Shalom, located across from the YMCA on South Russell. 

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