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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Shneor Steiger paints his Menorah as three Jewish communities come together at the Home Depot for a menorah-building workshop in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016.

Nearly 70 of the youngest members of Utah's Jewish community descended on Home Depot last Sunday afternoon, donning small, orange aprons as they made their way to paint-splattered tables.

The carpenters-in-training then used hammers and wood glue to assemble prefabricated menorah kits, while their parents tried to prevent smashed fingers and guided messy paintbrushes. Warnings to "Be careful!" were drowned out by shouts, giggles and a techno version of "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel."

Participants said the fun, kid-focused event was a great way to get into the Hanukkah spirit, noting that many of the holiday's rituals, like the nightly lighting of the menorah's candles, are designed to keep young people involved and engaged.

Sylvia Garrigan paints her menorah as three Jewish communities come together at the Home Depot for a menorah-building workshop in Salt Lake City on Dec. 18, 2016. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

"I love that my kids have made their own menorahs," said Natalie Stevenett, as one of her daughters painted her creation bright pink. She noted that Sunday's crafts will join the six or seven menorahs they already have on display in their house.

Although the Hanukkah menorah plays an important role in a centuries-old ritual, it's common for Jewish families to welcome a little silliness when they choose which menorahs to use, said Rabbi Leora Kaye, program director for the Union for Reform Judaism, which is based in New York, in a phone interview.

"Lots of families have more than one. Maybe you'll use one that's been in the family for generations and put it next to the new one made by the 5-year-old out of clay," she said.

What it signifies

Hanukkah menorahs, whether they've been bought, inherited or built by a child, are both tools and symbols, according to Rabbi Kaye. They hold the nine candles needed for the nightly ritual, one for each of the holiday's eight days and an extra helper candle to light the others.

The menorah "is the physical tool to use to enact the philosophy behind the holiday, which is that it's our job to put more light into the world," she said.

Hanukkah celebrates the return of the Maccabees, a group of Jews who lived in a time of persecution more than 2,000 years ago, to the temple in Jerusalem. They purified and rededicated the sacred space, lighting a menorah, a special candelabrum used in the temple, with the little oil they could find. Miraculously, the flame burned for eight days, until oil could be resupplied.

Today, their actions are commemorated with eight days of rituals, the timing of which shifts each year according to the Jewish calendar, which primarily follows the lunar cycle.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

On each night of Hanukkah, which runs from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1 this year, Jewish families across the world join together to light a candle for each night that's passed. They repeat short prayers, giving thanks for the miracle that the holiday honors.

After the brief ritual, families may sit together in the candle glow or put their lit menorah on display in windows so that their light can be shared with others.

Like glowing Christmas lights on a tree in Christian homes, the warm light from the menorah's candles is comforting and sentimental, said Lisa Greenfield, who lives in Mesa, Arizona.

She said that lighting the menorah as an adult connects her to all the times she's participated in the ritual before: alongside her brothers growing up, at the Jewish student center on the University of Iowa campus and in her first apartment. She can't wait to light her menorah in her new home this year.

"The candles are beautiful and bright and will bring such comfort to the new house," Greenfield said.

Unique menorahs

Jewish families celebrate Hanukkah with menorahs of all shapes and sizes. Creative designs help get kids interested in learning about the ritual and connect people across generations, according to Stevenett and other parents at Sunday's event.

"I'm a collector," said Fran Lapin, after failing to remember how many menorahs she has in her home. She brought her two grandchildren to Home Depot to paint two more, smiling as they reminded her of her robot-themed one and the one covered in animals.

Menorahs don't have to be formal to be on display and — as one young builder noted — they'll all get covered in wax anyway. Why not have some fun?

Greenfield did just that in 2013, when Hanukkah overlapped with Thanksgiving. She molded a turkey-shaped menorah out of clay, and welcomed chances to show it off.

"It made the holiday more fun because all of my friends (most of whom are not Jewish) wanted to come over and light candles with me so they could see my 'menurkey' in action," she said.

Odin Kirkham paints his menorah as three Jewish communities come together at the Home Depot for a Menorah-building workshop in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Many people at Sunday's menorah workshop, which was attended by members of Chabad Lubavitch of Salt Lake City, Chabad Lubavitch of Park City and Congregation Kol Ami, mentioned previous homemade creations. One woman had fashioned personalized ones for her kids out of blocks shaped like letters.

Their stories — and their smiles as they watched as some children pounded on nails with the wrong end of the hammer — were full of love, just like Hanukkah and the menorah lighting are meant to be.

"There's an idea in Jewish thought that you want to have a deep connection to the ritual object you're using or rituals you're doing," Rabbi Kaye said.