Thoughts on Chanukah

A Message from Avi West, Senior Education Officer & Master Teacher, Federation’s Department of Jewish Life & Learning  

I have always been intrigued by the question of how the Maccabees triumphed in their quest to retake Jerusalem and renew the Jewish culture.  To attribute it all to a divine miracle seemed to limit the critical partnership between God and humans. And to overemphasize the military victory leaves me cold in an age when might is confused with right.

Perhaps the overarching theme, taken from the name Chanukah, is the spark that lit the way for the Maccabees and continues to be the most necessary ingredient in Federation’s future success.

The root of the Hebrew word Chanukah is the word for both education and dedication, chinuch.  When the Hasmonean family who produced the military leaders of the rebellion against Syrian Greeks wanted to rally the Jews in Judaea, they first had to let them KNOW about their heritage before the Jews could say NO to assimilation and loss of cultural autonomy. And the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem could not have been done without a community dedicated to its survival.

Today it is NGO non-profits around the world that are sparking people to action in discovering their identity, making their lives richer with meaning, and creating community safety nets so all can be included in the “miracle” of the modern Jewish renaissance. Mission driven organizations, like our Federation and our partners here and in Israel, work with inspired dedication in friend-raising, fundraising, convening and collaborating to sustain the flames of creativity that ensure a Jewish future. A strong lay/volunteer/professional partnership is key to success.

But here is a glossed over truth to the Chanukah story. Although full assimilation into Hellenistic culture was prevented, the Judaism that emerged after the Maccabees did incorporate new ideas and forms. The nimble leadership of the Sages rose from the community controversies and the partisan politics of the Hasmonean priests. So too in our time; the basic “oil” of our heritage remains both constant and “fluid.” The spirit of entrepreneurship has inspired amazing Jewish responses to challenges of identity, “belonging,” and the search for meaning. Federation is blessed to be in a position to invest in new and creative ways to spark education and dedication in service to community.

So when I light the candles this Chanukah, and when I as a Federation team member “light lights” that illuminate new educational and cultural initiatives, I embrace the divine spark that inspires me, but I am grateful for the Federation platform that adds human agency to the partnership that keeps creation unfolding daily.

Want proof that our traditions can do well within a modern idiom? Look at the thousands of new models of Chanukah menorahs that appear yearly, along with the multiple ways to make a latke. And what better way to remember our victory over King Antiochus than through a Queen retelling of the Chanukah story?

It goes well with sour cream or applesauce!