Griffin Prentice was the smallest child of eight chosen to light the menorah from an audience of children frantically waving their hands to get the rabbi's attention.

The noisy crowd hushed as the diminutive 6-year-old stretched on tiptoe to light the third candle. The flame leapt high and the din once again filled the hall at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.

Griffin and his mother were among 4,000 people who attended a Dec. 9 pre-Hanukah party that also celebrated the grand opening of the center's sweeping red brick building on Little River Turnpike in Fairfax. The center serves a growing Jewish community of about 35,000 in Northern Virginia.

Griffin's mother, Rebecca Pollino, had driven for half an hour from Manassas Park to bring him to the event. "Hanukah is an important family time," she said. "I didn't want him to miss this."

Hanukah, an eight-day celebration of Jewish faith that began Tuesday evening, recalls the victory of the Jews over the Syrians more than 2,000 years ago.

As the story goes, when the Jews reclaimed their temple, only one bottle of oil was left, just enough for one day's light. But the light miraculously lasted the eight days of their celebration of gratitude.

Today, the story symbolizes the idea of faith. Jewish families celebrate by lighting one more candle each night on a special eight-light candelabrum and reciting prayers proclaiming the God of the true light.

Hanukah also is considered a time of rededication. At synagogues, temples are reconsecrated during this December feast.

"There couldn't have been a more ideal time to open our new building," said Jeff Karatz, the center's executive director.

The Hanukah party was the first major event in the center's $8 million facility, which was finished last month.

The halls of the new center were jammed with fathers carrying tots on their shoulders, grandmothers with loaded shopping bags, and ball-bouncing teenagers waiting in line to get plates full of potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, traditional Hanukah foods.

At one end of the building, mothers tended a busy bazaar. A hot item was a T-shirt that poked fun at the Jewish holiday of Passover, when children must master long memorized passages dealing with the question: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The T-shirt said, "Why is this night different? Don't ask."

Downstairs, children stitched yarmulkes, the skullcaps Jewish men wear when they pray, and learned to play dreidel, a traditional Hanukah game in which players take turns spinning a small top inscribed with Hebrew religious symbols.

The children's flea market stretched the length of the first-floor hallway. "Everything left is reduced to 5 or 10 cents," said Marjorie Kent, 10, who in an hour had taken in nearly $80 from her closet clean-out.

Young men and women tested the new equipment in the center's aerobic fitness center, and a line of swimmers did laps in the 25-meter pool that sparkled with the light entering from a huge window wall.

Karatz surveyed the crowd and seemed to relax. "This is a great turnout, a great beginning," he said.

The center's new building will consolidate many programs that were held at locations all over Northern Virginia and coordinated for 12 years from a small house on the site of the new building.

The programs serve many ages and needs. There are dancing groups, book clubs, classes in subjects from Yiddish to embroidery, singles clubs, and activities for seniors.

"We're like a Jewish Y," Karatz said. "We celebrate all the Jewish holidays here, but we mainly support the secular side of Jewish life."

Membership at the nonprofit center, which ranges from $395 annually for a family to $125 for a senior citizen, is also open to people who are not Jewish.

The center is not affiliated with two other Jewish community centers in the area, one in Rockville and one in downtown Washington.

By the end of the party, Griffin Prentice had a small jelly smear on his face and an armload of things to carry home.

"Even though it's a long way to drive from Manassas Park, I'm thinking about joining," his mother said. "My son needs something to identify with."