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Why Hanukkah’s message of Jewish resilience matters so much after Pittsburgh

Rabbis and faith leaders say the story of survival is one many Jews need right now.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg Lights World’s Largest Hanukkah Menorah
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rabbi Shmuel Butman prepare to light the world’s largest Hanukkah menorah in 2013 in New York City.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

For many Jews, this Hanukkah will be a particularly charged time of reflection.

The “festival of lights” is often celebrated by contemporary American families as a child-centric seasonal holiday. In modern times, it’s often been framed in popular media as Judaism’s answer to Christmas. But in the wake of October’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which an avowed anti-Semite is accused of killing 11 Jewish worshippers, the holiday’s message and meaning are taking on a more defiant turn.

In an America where anti-Semitic incidents are at an all-time high, according to both the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, Hanukkah has become a more loaded holiday. A time of year that has become synonymous with family and domesticity is becoming a time to reflect on what it means to be Jewish.

Numerous rabbis and community leaders have reported feeling that Hanukkah’s meaning as a holiday about Jewish survival in a diverse religious landscape is more vital in America in 2018 than ever.

“The great strength of America is diversity,” Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman of Brith Sholom Synagogue in Erie, Pennsylvania, told me. “And that’s part of the message of the Hanukkah story. It plays in every year. And it plays in this year even more so.”

Hanukkah this year is as much about resilience and identity as about presents

As Dara Lind wrote for Vox last year, Hanukkah began as a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish tradition, at least compared to the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It commemorates an incident that occurred in the Second Temple period of Jerusalem, during the second century BC. During that time, Jerusalem was under the control of a Persian king from the Seleucid dynasty, who pressured his subjects to universally worship the Greek pantheon. The Jews of Jerusalem revolted against the Seleucids — ultimately driving them out of the city — and rededicated their Temple, the holiest place in the city. Although they had very little oil with which to keep the temple candles burning, the fires remained in place for eight nights.

Hanukkah only became a major holiday in the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily among American Jews, many of whom actively sought to find within the Jewish tradition an analogue to more popular “mainstream” holidays like Christmas. In part because it’s primarily celebrated at home, rather than in a synagogue, it’s become more associated with spending time with family, or with selecting presents for children, than with its original historical significance.

But this year, many rabbis say, Hanukkah’s original message — a celebration of Jewish resilience and Jewish identity in a troubled time — is all the more important. Goodman told me, “The thing that I say every year about Hanukkah has more resonance this year than most years.”

Goodman said he interpreted the Hannukah story “as about a minority group that was different than the majority in the dominant culture. And the dominant majority culture said, ‘We’d like you to fit in better or go away.’ And the Jews said, ‘No, that’s not how we roll.’”

In other words, Hanukkah is about both Jewish survival and Jewish individuality: a celebration of Jews’ refusal to surrender their identity and values.

Rabbi Hara Person, the chief strategy officer at the Central Conference of American Rabbis, likewise highlighted the extent to which she saw Hanukkah as a vital symbolic affirmation of Jewish resilience.

After the Tree of Life shooting, Person said, “those themes are particularly resonant. ... There is more of a determination to really celebrate our distinctiveness as Jews and our identity as a people. We have to really be proud of who we are as Jews and affirm that loudly and clearly and not be cowed or scared to be Jewish.”

Tammy Hepps, a leader of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Jewish progressive nonprofit Bend the Arc, agreed. Referring to the menorah — the traditional eight-pronged candelabra Jews traditionally light in windows during the holiday — Hepps told me it doubles as a symbol of Jewish visibility.

“It’s not just something that we display in our homes for ourselves,” she said, “but something we light so that passersby can see. For us, this year that feels like an act of resistance. ... We’re also showing we’re not afraid; even with what has happened, we’re not afraid to put that symbol in the window and let people know in the boldest way possible that we’re still here.”

Jewish leaders also see this Hanukkah as a chance to affirm Jewish commitment to social justice

Both Person and Goodman highlighted the degree to which being Jewish also meant affirming what they described as a specifically Jewish focus on social justice. Person noted how the Pittsburgh shooter had made numerous public condemnations of Jewish support for more relaxed immigration policies (including the false conspiracy theory that Jewish billionaire George Soros helped fund the Honduran migrant caravan). Now, she argues, it’s more important than ever for Jews to take a moral stance on issues of social concern.

“On the one hand there’s a sense of, let us affirm and celebrate and own our distinctiveness as Jews,” she said. “There’s also an affirmation of our values, our Jewish values: loving the stranger, helping the stranger caring for the vulnerable. That we won’t be scared into submission or scared to go against the values that we hold dear to us, like supporting immigrants.”

After all, Person pointed out, referring to the numerous Jewish diasporas around the world, “We were immigrants; we were refugees.”

Goodman likewise highlighted that point, saying that several members of his congregation saw the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shootings as a “double down moment”: a clarion call to action on the part of the Jewish community to stand by its progressive values. “If you were pissed off that we were supportive of immigrants and refugees before,” he characterizes those members as saying, “you’re really not going to like us now.”

For most Jewish families across America, Hanukkah may not look very different than it does any other year. While all of the Jewish leaders I spoke to said they’d seen increased security surrounding synagogues, Jewish schools, and other Jewish institutions since the Pittsburgh shootings, few anticipated massive changes to the celebration of the holiday itself.

Rather, all highlighted how Hanukkah’s original message seemed to be the one Jews needed to hear most right now.

Person told me her holiday plans — though on the surface similar to those she carried out every year — have taken on a newly political meaning.

“It’s really over the last two years or so — there is an increased sense that I have of fighting back against the darkness, which is one of the themes of Hanukkah,” she said. “That’s how I’ve been framing my Hanukkah parties: Let’s come together and bring some light into the darkness and bring some love and some joy into times that are otherwise bleak.”

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