When Mike and Brenda Pallen moved to Fernandina Beach in 1986, they wondered if they might be the only Jewish residents on Amelia Island.
Meanwhile, Sherry Stein-Corbin, another Fernandina Beach resident who is Jewish, was beginning to think she was somewhat isolated in her faith on Amelia Island.
"I spoke to a woman who had just moved here and she asked me, 'Where are all the Jewish people?' " Stein-Corbin said. "I said, 'You're looking at her.' "
A short time later, Pearl and Joe Birnbaum moved to Fernandina Beach and started looking for other Jewish neighbors. When they met up with the Pallens and Stein-Corbin, the five people formed a bond that created the core of the local Jewish social community, which now numbers more than 100 residents.
For many years, the closest Jewish community of substantial size to Fernandina Beach was in Jacksonville, where several synagogues and cultural centers cater to several thousand people.
"Everybody [Jewish people] thought they were the only Jewish person on the Island," Mike Pallen said. "That's one of the reasons we put this group together. The whole idea is so you don't feel isolated, and to get together to share a few traditions."
The group gets together a few times a year to celebrate high holidays and encourage education of their beliefs. But, Pearl Birnbaum said, the group isn't planning to build a local temple any time soon.
"It's more of a cultural, social club -- a social gathering with a tinge of religious aspects," she said. "[Jewish] people miss having a religious connection, so the group is a way to reaffirm our beliefs,"
The group recently gathered at Amelia Island Plantation for a Hanukkah party. More than 40 guests prepared and ate traditional Jewish dishes, then sat and listened as two members, Birnbaum and Steve Heller, retold the story behind Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights that falls near Christmas each year.
Hanukkah, a Hebrew term for "celebration," is observed to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Syrians in 165 B.C. Following a battle victory against Syrian overlords, the Jewish leaders of the revolt, known as the Maccabees, entered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.
For their rededication ceremony, the Jews found only a day's worth of oil to light the lamps in the temple. But the oil kept the lamps burning for eight days before more could be obtained -- a miracle that is symbolized with the lighting of the menorah, a type of candle-holder.
A candle is lit for each night of Hanukkah until all eight are burning on the final night. This year, Hanukkah officially began at sundown Thrsday.
"Hanukkah has become a more conscious holiday that is about freedom," Pallen said. …