Back in their native Russia, Daniel and Maria Kibnis observed Hanukah, the joyous Jewish festival of lights, behind closed doors, tight in their family circle, afraid to arouse suspicion.

But yesterday, at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, Kibnis and his wife sang and smiled, talked and laughed and celebrated Hanukah. Kibnis says, "for the first time free to feel like Jews."

Amid a boisterous, crowded Hanukah festival, about 80 Jewish Soviet immigrants to the Washington area gathered in a small room and heard the Hanukah story, some of them for the very first time.

Aviva Kaufman-Penn. the center's director of community services, told through an interpreter of the Jews' struggle in 165 B.C. to resist a Syrian tyrant, finally defeating the Syrians and recapturing the Temple of Jerusalem.

But they found only enough oil there to keep the temple's lamp burning one night. Miraculously, according to legend, the lamp continued to burn for eight days. The Jews commemorate their struggle for religious freedom by celebrating eight days of Hanukah and lighting one candle each night in a special eight-armed menorah candelabrum.

After hearing the story, the Kib his couple, from Kiev, and the other Jewish immigrants watched as 10 Soviet children stepped to a table and were handed candles to light golden menorahs.

"It was a moment I think these parents had prayed for and lived for all their lives," said Kaufman Penn when the ceremony was over.

Not everything going on at the center yesterday, the second day of Hanukah, was quite so solemn, though.

Elsewhere in the jammed hallways and noisy rooms, grandmothers danced with toddlers, mothers pushed strollers and wiped cotton candy from gooey faces and fathers kept paying for 25-cent tickets to all the festivities.

One of the most popular activities among the young was gambling, Hanukah-style, of course, with play money called "shekels" and a foursided Hebrew-lettered top called a dreidel.

While youngsters from 5 to 15 played with their spinning dreidels, toddlers in the next room whacked at a felt dreidel hanging from the ceiling. The Dreidel, when broken, spewed out tiny toys to the children's delight.

In another spot, fathers and children worked together to build wooden menorahs, sanding and scraping blocks of wood and gluing on round metal nuts to hold the candles. Nine-year-old Stephen Sortland of Reston made his own menorah, which he said he plans to "keep as a souvenir, because maybe I'll never be able to do it again." And the oldest child in the room, Bob Reinherz, 35, worked on his own creation in driftwood after helping his k-year-old son build a wooden menorah of his own.

Backstage behind the auditorium, where the players were readying themselves for antoher performance of "Beautiful Candles" and "The Great Hanukah Strike," 13-year-old Joanne Schwartz put on makeup and combed her hair so she could go on stage to play the role of candle number five. She told how all the candles in the play go on strike because "they don't think people know the real meaning of the candles on Hanukah."

And what is the meaning?

"They stand for the victory over tyranny and the miracle of freedom," Schwartz explained.

The center's religious director, Elaine Mann, said she wanted the day to be a "family day, a family celebration." To complete it she planned a torchlight ceremony, in which families form Argentina, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Russia and the Washington-area would light the menorah on the center's front lawn.

She said it would show that "though circumstances are different at this time and on this day all over the world Jews are celebrating Hanukah." CAPTION: Picture 1,2, Jill Moscowitz (left backround) plays the guitar and sings at a Hanukah Celebration at the Jewish Community yesterday. At right, Spec. 4 Larry Leonard stands a tour of duty at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Photos by Gerald Martineau-The Washington Post