Thousands of children -- from toddlers to teen-agers -- filled Rockville's Jewish Community Center Sunday to get an early start on celebrating the Hanukah holiday.

Little hands twirled dreidel tops and crafted menorahs as the vast center buzzed with activities, games and song symbolic of an ancient Jewish victory over oppression that the eight-day holiday honors.

The popular annual party attracted about 4,500 people throughout the afternoon, said center assistant director Elaine Mann. Montgomery County is home to the area's largest Jewish community, with 90,000 of the area's 165,000 Jewish residents, she added.

Hanukah, which began Tuesday night, is one of a few holidays in the Jewish faith without solemn religious restrictions, and the party allows families "to come together and celebrate Jewishness and community," Mann said.

And for children, the party's history-teaching activities help "create roots" and "develop a Jewish identity," she said.

With similar sentiment, Germantown resident Marlene Duvall said the party "gives everybody a chance to get together and a sense of being Jewish" -- particularly her young son Joshua who, Duvall said, attends a county public school where "they do things that are more universally Christian."

But several of the young partygoers demonstrated an early awareness of their faith.

Seven-year-old Benjamin Bregman of Bethesda said the Free Soviet Jewry rally last week in Washington that he attended is "connected to Hanukah." Both represent caring about "letting the Jews go," he said.

"Hanukah is mostly about the Maccabees and fighting for our religion," said 7-year-old Andrea Vogel of Rockville. "I think it's very nice being Jewish."

In 165 B.C., the Maccabee family led a rebellion that reclaimed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem from the Syrian Greeks. From one saved vial of oil, the temple's eternal flame was relit and miraculously lasted eight days, according to the Jewish faith. Thus today a menorah's eight candles are lit one by one each night of the holiday.

A feeling for community brought Lauren Gash, Gregg Garmisa and their two children to the party, where they enjoyed the traditional offerings of latke potato pancakes and sufganiyot jelly doughnuts.

Having come to Bethesda from Chicago only five months ago, "we wanted to meet other young families," Gash said.

And young families with toddlers easily dominated the make-up of the partygoers Sunday afternoon.

Families are the center of Judaism and are responsible for passing on traditions, Mann said.

"That's why on the afternoon of the Dallas {Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins football} game, you see so many families, with both parents," she said.

But the holiday is apparently not just for children, as center staffers happily noted that a Hanukah singles brunch in Potomac that morning attracted 200.