It was a half hour before the candle lighting ceremony marking the start of the Jewish feast of Hanukah was to begin, but already about 50 youngsters had gathered at the Washington Monument to dance and sing songs recalling their Jewish heritage.

The youngsters, many of them Israeli students visiting America, were quickly joined by a dozen area teenagers. They had accompanied a young girl who had run from the Lincoln Memorial to the monument carrying a flaming torch that was to be used in the celebration that officially began with the lighting of the first of eight Hanukah candles.

The Lincoln Washington Memorial torch run, organized by the members of the Washington Area Jewish Youth Assembly, has become a tradition in the Washington area Jewish community in recent years. This year, the youngsters renewed the 2,000-year-old Jewish tradition by running with the torch from the Monument to the Israeli Embassy, where they lit candles inside the embassy with Ambassador Simcha Dinitz.

From there, the youths carried the torch to Rockville by bus, where they were to descend about a mile from the city's Jewish Community Center. The final mile was to be covered by the Torch bearers on foot.

This year's torch run was particularly singnificant, Ambassador Dinitz told the crowd of panting runners as he stood on the steps of the embassy. "The torch is shining brighter than ever . . . we have started a new road to peace in Israel," he said, referring to the recent breakthrough in communication between Israel and Egypt.

Inside the embassy, where a staff Hanukah party was under way, the lights were turned off and some of the smaller children, holding Hanukah candles, danced traditional dances. "It's important that they are not in their homeland," explained Mordechy Yaskill, an Israel emissary stationed in the Washington area to teach youngsters about Israel and help them arrange trips to the Jewish state.

Many of the youths, who wore T-shirts that said "Chanuka Torch Relay" beneath bright-colored down jackets and carried small Israeli flags, said they wanted to participate in yesterday's ceremony to show their spiritual solidarity with Israel and their respect for its history.

"It's an affirmation of our Jewish spiritual and cultural identity . . . Right now the world opinion toward Israel is wavering. People are wondering who's right and who's wrong the Arabs or the Jews. We just want to affirm our identity with the Jews," said 21-year-old Maury Ostroff of Silver Spring, a member of the Jewish youth group Habonim.

It has become traditional for a Washington official to do the actual lighting of the first candle at the Monument, and this year Howard Lee, a representative of D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, participated in the ceremony.

Lee was handed the torch to light the candle from 16-year-old Donna Goldbloom, of Chevy Chase, an award-winning swimmer who wore a red, white and blue jump suit marked USA for the occasion.

As Lee lit the first candle in the cool breeze over the monument grounds, Ernest Shalowitz, vice president of the Jewish Community Council of greater Washington, prayed aloud in Hebrew. "We hoped this light will give insight to all Americans to appreciate what Israel is as a democracy," Shalowitz said later.

The torch used at this year's relay was flown in from the Israeli town of Modi'in, the site of a revolt by the Israelities in 165 B.C. against the Greek rulers who wanted them to abandon the Jewish faith. Led by the Maccabees, the Jews subdued their oppressors and re-established Jewish sovereignty in Judea.

Hanukah commemorates a miracle that took place when the Israelities regained the temple in Judea and found only enough oil to keep the temple's lamp burning for one night. Miraculously, the lamp continued to burn for eight days.

Modern-day Jews still commemorate the eight days of Hanukah by lighting one candle on each of the eight days on an eight-branched candle holder called a menorah.