The way the Temple Or Olam will light the menorah this year is a reflection of the congregation's view on Jewish life.
At its annual Hanukkah party Dec. 19, at least one menorah will have all its candles lit. Another will have only two candles lit: the first of its eight candles and the ninth candle, which is used to light the others.
Barbara Thiede, co-founder and spiritual leader of Or Olam, will tell the story of the two menorah lighting traditions.
One ancient rabbi argued that the light of the menorah should increase for each of the eight days of Hanukkah, celebrating God as the "God of lights," Thiede said. Another believed all eight candles should be lit on the first day of Hanukkah, creating the most brilliant light possible and recognizing God as the "creator of the light."
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"I want to tell the story to remind them of the incredible diversity we celebrate in our congregation and the different views and takes on the traditions we celebrate," she said.
Temple Or Olam, founded in 2004, is the only Jewish congregation in Cabarrus County and was the first north of Mecklenburg County and south of Salisbury to have its own Torah, Thiede said.
Although the nondenominational Jewish congregation is small, with about 35 families, Thiede said, its members represent a number of Jewish traditions.
"The diversity among that group is quite extraordinary," she said. "It's critical to me that we understand how rich and varied our traditions and history are, if only so that when somebody walks in with a Sephardi background (for example), their customs and traditions would be recognized."
Temple Or Olam thrives in its differences. Its musicians range from a guitar player from the Appalachian mountains to a singer with African American, Barbadian and Japanese backgrounds. Members bring Jewish traditions that originated in Eastern and central Europe, Spain, Portugal, the Middle East and north Africa.
That means contradictions can occur, such as when one family brought a rice dish to a Passover meal following their tradition, although other Jewish traditions don't eat rice at Passover.
"It was a teachable moment about what else can we learn, what else can we find out about each other," Thiede said. "In general, I can say that from the get-go, there has been an extraordinary eclecticism about this congregation.
"The congregation takes a very open attitude toward 'Let's just be Jews.'"
At Or Olam's religious school for children, the curriculum is based on Montessori methods, Thiede said. A congregation member with years of education experience wrote the curriculum, which has children learn the Hebrew alphabet, then teach themselves the language.
"This is a congregation that's very much hands-on and likes to do for itself," she said.
The school children, who also are part of Or Olam, will present a skit at the Hanukkah party, which Thiede said will include a horse, Darth Vader and Albert Einstein. The children made the props themselves, and Thiede said it's not unusual for them to tweak the script.
"It's perfectly fine," she said. "The idea to our commemorations and our festivals is very deeply what can we do for ourselves, for each other and for our guests that comes out of our hearts and our own minds."
The party also will include a sing-along in four languages: Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish and English. There will be Israeli dancing, a havdalah ceremony and plenty of food.
It also will feature a surprise presentation of a new menorah to the congregation's children. The gift will come from a Christian woman who bought the menorah for her Jewish friend, who died before she could receive it. The woman has decided to give the menorah to Or Olam's children instead.
Although the congregation never knew the woman's friend, who was "on the cusp of exploring her Jewish roots," Thiede said, the menorah will be a remembrance of her.
"It's a loss, but it doesn't prevent us from having something about this person conveyed to us," Thiede said. The menorah is colorful and has balloons going up the frame. "We have gotten to know her spiritually through this gift.
"I think it's going to be a very moving moment for a lot of people."
The Hanukkah party will be 3-5:30 p.m. Dec. 19 at McGill Baptist Church, 5300 Poplar Tent Road in Concord. It is free for congregants and college students; guests are asked to contribute $18 per individual and $36 per family to offset costs for food and rental. Payment can be made at the door.
Temple Or Olam asks people to RSVP to 704-720-7577 by Saturday. For more information, visit www.or-olam.org.