More than 55 million colorful Hanukkah candles were made by the Menorah Candle Company factory in Sderot in the past two months. Most are sold in Israel, but many are shipped abroad, to Europe, Australia and the United States. The owner of the company, 82-year-old Holocaust survivor Yisrael Sheiner, says he "can't complain." Not about the distance between Sderot and Tel Aviv, about the Qassam rockets, or about the global economic crisis.
He seems to take it all this with a good measure of resignation - what's a Qassam to someone who spent most of World War Two II the Polish woods, hiding with his family from Nazi soldiers? Sheiner sees it as symbolic that the most-bombarded city in Israel is producing millions of candles that stand for Jewish heroism and resilience. Sheiner's own story and that of his factory and its workers both have their share of determination, faith and miracles.
Evidence of one such miracle can be found in the scarred asphalt of the factory's loading yard. Two years ago, when "cast lead" referred only to a Hanukkah dreidel, or spinning top, a Qassam rocket hit the plant. It missed the thin aluminum roof of the factory and landed in the yard. The blast sent doors flying off their hinges and blew out the factory windows. The workers, who were inside packing the candle cartons, were sure it was the end. "The explosion was very powerful, and we all ran breathless for the bomb shelter," relates Natasha Kosichevsky, 58, who has worked in the plant for 14 of the 15 years she has lived in Israel. "We didn't go on working that day, we all went to get medical checkups. All the workers who used to ignore the alarms and stay out of the shelter realized we were all a target too, and that our very survival was a miracle," Kosichevsky said.
"But I'd rather be here with my friends even during the worst of it," she adds. "We had work to do and orders to ship, and besides, there's nothing worse than sitting at home on your own in times like these."
Sheiner runs the factory from his office in south Tel Aviv, but there's hardly a candle that leaves Menora without Seiner making sure it will last and keep burning. "He's a world expert on candlemaking," factory manager Nir Ziv says. "He can take one look at a candle and tell you how long it will last and the quality of the flame."
"It was the first thing I did when I came to Israel - buying a candle factory," Sheiner says. "It's an act of closure for me. All I wanted was a candle factory in Israel. I wanted to give people work more than I wanted to make money."
The closure Sheiner speaks of refers to his own miraculous story. When he was 11 he, his parents and his three siblings escaped from the Polish town of Pinczow into the woods, fleeing the Nazi occupiers. Hanukkah came as they were on the run. Seiner wanted to light the traditional hanukkiah. "I drew the hanukkiah I remembered from home, took a piece of wood and carved it out," he says. "We celebrated Hanukkah in some bunker in the middle of the woods, but the important thing is that we all survived."
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