Blakeley Bagley was one of a handful of kids Sunday at the United Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in Joplin. On such days, when a rabbi in training visits, kids attend a special class about the Jewish faith that delves deeper into traditions and customs.

Sunday morning's session was all about Hanukkah, which started Sunday night. Blakeley and others practiced blessings and prayers, and also lit a candle on a menorah.

Rhea Brown, Blakeley's mother, watched with pride.

"I grew up coming to this synagogue," Brown said. "My dad grew up coming to this synagogue, and now my daughter does, and that means a lot to me."

The annual Festival of Lights started on Sunday night and runs until the night of Monday, Dec. 10. Each night, families will say special blessings, light another candle, sing traditional songs and exchange gifts.

It's a holiday that is particularly festive for Joplin's Hebrew community, rooted in traditions that have lasted for more than 2,000 years, said Paul Teverow, a member of the congregation's board of directors.

"For the Jewish community, it's mostly a family holiday," Teverow said. "There is no special service, just a couple of extra prayers. It's a time for Jews to come together as a community and remind ourselves that we're still here, and how our ancestors endured."

One of the biggest misconceptions about Hanukkah is its importance compared with other Jewish holidays, said student rabbi Samantha Schapera. While Christmas and Easter are two of the most important days for Christianity, Hanukkah is not as important as Passover, Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

"The reason Hanukkah becomes big is because it's a family holiday," Schapera said. "It's really easy for kids to participate. Its closeness to Christmas, as well, helps make the whole month really festive."

The celebration is rooted in history, Schapera said, with the resistance against invading armies, desecration of a temple and a miracle involving oil and a lamp.

More than 2,000 years ago, Israelites in Jerusalem faced invaders from the Seleucid Empire, originating in modern-day Syria and Lebanon, Schapera said. The Maccabean Revolt repelled the invaders, but not before they could do significant damage inside the temple. A ceremonial menorah intended to be lit at all times was damaged and held enough olive oil to be lit for about a day.

As the Israelites began to clean up the temple's damage, they noticed that the menorah remained lit day after day. Somehow, the small amount of oil left behind had extended for eight days.

The menorah is a symbol of rededication. It features nine candles: one for each day of the event and one to hold the shamesh, a helper candle used to light the other candles.

Passing such traditions to her daughter was meaningful, Brown said. Growing up as a Jew in the region, she enjoyed being different as she grew up.

Now she cherishes the moments she spends with her daughter and her parents.

"What I tell Blakeley is that this is what I used to do as a kid," Brown said. "Not just the celebration, but being a family. It's that one little moment, instead of just sitting down to dinner, you celebrate being who you are and what it means to be a Jew."

"What it means to be a Jew" has taken on a different meaning over the last few months, however.

Members of the Jewish community see a rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S. An October shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead and six others wounded was mourned by Joplin's synagogue. Other acts of anti-Semitism have been on the rise across the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

But those displays don't sway members of the community in the observance. Sharing the holiday traditions is a matter of pride and joy of history.

"Another name for Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, because it brings lights to a dark time," Schapera said. "With the rise of anti-Semitism, it can feel like we're in a dark time. So we probably need this symbol of light a little more this year."

For Brown, she simply appreciates the traditions of not only the history of her people but her family's history as well.

"As long as we can get together and light some candles," Brown said. "Another reason why this means so much to me is how my dad went here, and his parents went here. I had my bat mitzvah here, and my daughter had hers here as well. This building has been here for the family for a long time, and coming to this building means a lot to me."

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.