Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights, begins next Tuesday night (December 16). It remembers the time long ago when Jews wanted to purify their reclaimed temple in Jerusalem by burning ritual oil. They only had enough oil for one day, but miraculously that small amount lasted for eight. Earlier this month, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York assembled prominent scholars and others to explore new themes for the Hanukkah celebration.
CHERRY HILL, N.J. (JTA) – As Hanukkah nears, let the grousing begin.
Too much is made of a holiday that Judaism ranks as a minor festival — one whose rite takes no more than five minutes to complete each night — some American Jews will say. Some will complain about the season’s excessive commercialism or materialism.
Yet most Jews will also participate in at least one of the many customs developed by American Jews to augment the holiday’s simple rite and express the enhanced place of Hanukkah, which this year falls on Dec. 16, on the American Jewish liturgical calendar.
In addition to exchanging gifts (or giving them to children), they will decorate their homes, eat fried foods, sing songs, listen to holiday music and attend one or more of the many holiday festivities held at Jewish community centers, synagogues, Jewish-themed museums and Jewish schools.
At these and other venues, they will join in more elaborate versions of the domestic customs. They will light holiday candles or watch them be kindled, sing more songs than they do at home, snack on potato pancakes or jelly donuts, chat with their friends and neighbors, watch or participate in amateur theatricals on the holiday’s theme — generally have a good time.
Beneath the lighthearted celebrating, however, more serious meanings are often conveyed through the holiday’s songs.
The word Hanukkah means dedication, and the holiday has always highlighted occasions when Jews overcame challenges to their continued religious commitment. Hanukkah commemorates the rededicating of the Jerusalem Temple in 165 BCE after a band of Jews led by the Maccabees retook it from the Syrians, who had conquered Judea.
Generations of Jews retold that story at Hanukkah and thanked God for helping their ancestors to prevail. American Jews found additional reasons to reaffirm their dedication at Hanukkah and often voiced those reasons in original songs.
Since 1842, American Jews have been singing Hanukkah songs that expressed the complicated experience of being Jewish in the United States. That year, a new hymnal for Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, S.C., included a special hymn for Hanukkah that reassured congregants that the God to whom they prayed forgave their sins and continued to stand by them. The hymn countered the energetic effort by local Christian evangelicals to convince them to worship Jesus.
Yet because it reassured Jews living anywhere in a largely Protestant America, the song appeared in hymnals used by both the Reform and Conservative movements as late as 1959.
In the 1890s, two American Reform rabbis, in New York City and Philadelphia, wrote a new English version of “Maoz Tsur,” a song that Jews have sung at Hanukkah since the 13th century. Titled “Rock of Ages,” the new song kept the melody of its predecessor, which thanked God for saving Jews in the past, but in its shortened version substituted a homey image of domesticity bright with lights and joy and promised a future that would see “tyrants disappearing.”
“Rock of Ages” offered Jews an emotional link to past traditions through its melody while reminding them of the tyranny currently besetting their coreligionists in Eastern Europe. As 2.3 million new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to America over the next 30 years, the song grew popular. It became a fixture at American Hanukkah celebrations following the rise of Nazism in 1933, when the hope for a world free of tyranny seemed even more desperate.
Rewrites of older prayers or songs often appeared in the first half of the 20th century. One Hanukkah rewrite published during World War II offered a new version of an older prayer that described God’s saving power. The rewrite, offered in Hebrew as “Mi Yimalel?” and in English as “Who Can Retell?,” has a lively melody that fits its lyric, which aims to rouse Jews to act politically, militarily and philanthropically.
Although a “hero or sage” always came to the aid of needy Jews in the past, it says, the current problems facing Jewry require more. Now “all Israel must arise” and “redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.” The crises facing Jews during those years influenced the ideas and emotions that they expressed in this Hanukkah song.
The experience of unity and strength that is felt in group singing may have assuaged Jews’ fears during those decades of disorientation and anguish. Hanukkah provided an occasion for singing songs that voiced old and new hopes while building new communal alliances and bonds.
And that, perhaps, helps explain the broad and continuing appeal of Hanukkah for American Jews. Hanukkah allows Jews to join in the national merrymaking occasioned by Christmas, but also to rededicate ourselves to Judaism.
In homes, synagogues, museums, community centers and schools, it provides us with an occasion for gathering, singing, eating, lighting candles in the evenings of the shortest days of the year, exchanging gifts, voicing religious commitments and values, and enjoying being Jews.
(Dianne Ashton is the author of “Hanukkah in America: A History,” which was published last year by NYU Press, and a professor of religion studies at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.)
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Mazel tov! You’ve just been elected to your first term as a trustee on the temple board. Together with your fellow congregational lay leaders, you struggle with the challenges surrounding member engagement, finances, and sustainable growth. More often than not, a part of each board meeting centers around discussing various creative ideas that you hope will produce meaningful results.
One idea is to ask the rabbi to set aside 20 minutes a day – for however many days it takes – to call every household in the congregation. You and your board colleagues believe that the key to member engagement and giving is the rabbi, a beloved community leader. Through a connection with the rabbi, the thinking goes, members will feel more engaged, they will be more likely to be involved, and they will feel more compelled to give voluntary financial support when asked.
Another is to give the executive director a financial bonus if certain membership goals are met. The temple wants more members, and the executive director wants more salary, so it follows that such an incentive will be a “win-win” situation for all.
Indeed, both ideas are creative, and fully recognize that without strong, capable professional and lay leaders, the congregation will not grow.
However, by placing so much of the responsibility and reward for the success of your congregation on clergy and staff, the board disregards the concept of sacred partnership, which asserts that synagogues – and other Jewish non-profit, member based organizations – are most successful when lay leaders, professional staff, and clergy work together in the spirit of Jewish teachings and traditions to manage day-to-day operations.
Imagine two different membership scenarios:
In the first one, your temple’s membership grows and, as a result, the executive director receives a bonus. But then, the rabbi leaves suddenly, two board colleagues compete publicly for the presidency, dues are raised to fix a leaky roof, and, once again, membership numbers dip.
Should the executive director return the bonus? Should his or her pay be reduced? Of course not. Each of the factors contributing to both the synagogue’s growth – and then its decline – was beyond the control of the executive director and, in fact, beyond the control of any one individual.
In the second scenario, a parent decides to practice guitar in the lobby while he waits for his son in religious school. Hearing him play, another congregant brings her ukulele the next week and plays along with him. Soon, there’s an impromptu jam session at the temple every Thursday night. Word of this organic music fest spreads, and before long, the congregation has acquired not only a reputation for promoting community and music, but new members as well. In this instance, the congregation’s growth evolved in ways that no one person could have planned, and for which no one person can take credit.
If all responsibility and reward for membership growth fall to the executive director or the rabbi, the community-at-large is marginalized and its potential impact on membership is minimal. Although the executive director and the rabbi certainly play a critical role in fostering a welcoming Jewish environment, people join our communities because of many different people – the rabbi, the religious school director, the volunteer who answers the phones on Tuesday mornings, the guitar-playing guy in the lobby, the Saturday morning Torah study “regulars,” and you! Staff, clergy, volunteers, worshipers, seekers, leaders, and learners are all part of the community. Only when everyone works together in the spirit of sacred partnership, can we cultivate healthy, growing and successful congregations.
Mazel tov again on joining the leadership ranks of your congregation! May your work as a leader help forge stronger connections, deeper relationships, and robust growth for your congregation and community.
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By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
May it be Thy will, my God and the God of my fathers, to protect me against the impudent and against impudence, from bad men and bad companions, from severe sentences and severe plaintiffs, whether a son of the covenant or not.
– The personal prayer of Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi, BT B’rachot 16b
I. Non-Orthodox Weddings in Israel
Last June, I officiated at a wedding in Israel for close friends, who were subsequently married in a civil union abroad in order to have their marriage recognized in Israel. A pending bill now in the Knesset calls for hundreds of rabbis and officiants like me to be jailed for such offenses. Jewish Home Member of Knesset Eli Ben-Dahan, the bill’s original author, rationalizes this unnerving legislation by explaining its purpose as ‘acting to aid those women who have been refused a get (certificate of divorce) by their husbands and for whom the rabbinate is unable to assist’. The stated goal is also to assist victims of other precarious matrimonial predicaments resulting specifically from outside-the-Rabbinate marriage authorities. (Currently, only the Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate can marry Jewish couples.) Many of us believe that this bill is an attempt to level a blow t0 the growing phenomenon of young Israeli couples who seek their own Jewish religious wedding ceremonies—Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and the rabbis who accommodate them–threatening the Rabbinate’s control. While this bill is unlikely to pass in the Knesset, it joins a growing list of bills that are of grave concern.
This much-discussed bill, delayed in the Knesset, seeks to define the identity of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. This is not only superfluous, but seeks to place values of democracy and equality as secondary to those of Jewish nationality. The bill also attempts to establish Jewish law as a source of inspiration for the Knesset–which, in many instances, it already is in the Israeli Supreme Court. As the bill morphs from one version to another, we must watch closely.
III. Rounding up infiltrators or persecuting the strangers in our midst?
The original intent of the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law was to prevent the entry of Palestinian terrorists. The law was never lifted. The third amendment to this law, passed on January 10, 2012, and implemented in June 2013 expanded the definition of “infiltrator” to include Africans entering Israel through the border with Egypt. According to this amendment, infiltrators could be detained up to three years, and those from any country considered a “hostile enemy state” (including those fleeing genocide or oppressive regimes) could be detained indefinitely. A group of asylum seekers and human rights organizations brought charges against the state to the High Court of Justice in response to this amendment. In September 2013 the High Court of Justice voided Amendment 3, stating that the law “disproportionately limits the constitutional right to liberty determined in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” (High Court of Justice [Israel], 2013).
The volley between the Parliament and human rights organizations did not stop there. Parliament passed Amendment 4 in December 2013, which determined that “infiltrators” entering Israel after this date could be detained without trial for up to one year. After one year they would be transferred to Holot, an open-detention camp, and held until they could be deported–either as the result of an improvement in the political situation in their country of origin, or until they signed a ‘voluntary’ return agreement. The distinction between full detention and open camps is that those in open camps may leave the premises, but must return three times a day for roll call and must stay overnight in the facility, which is closed from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. In effect, this prevents detainees from working, since the punishment for failing to attend roll call is to be sent back to a full-detention camp. In addition to picking up asylum seekers at the border, the government began to round up asylum seekers who had entered before December 2013, and placing them in Holot, causing panic among the asylum-seeking community.
In September 2014 Amendment 4 was struck down by the High Court of Justice, ordering the closure of Holot and voiding the one-year mandatory detention period for new entrants. In the decision, Justice Fogelman stated:
Every person, by virtue of being a person, has the right to human dignity…and infiltrators are people. And that needs explanation, let’s say it explicitly: infiltrators do not lose one ounce of their right to human dignity just because they reached the country in this way or another.
The 5th Amendment—passed two days ago—reinstates Holot as an open-detention center, reduces confinement to 20 months (with an evening roll call), and prohibits detainees from working. There is evidence that Likud’s Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, and Knesset Interior Committee Chairwoman Miri Regev are working together to push the amendment through the Knesset before its impending dissolution. On October 26, 2014, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to approve a bill that would allow the Knesset to override rulings by the High Court of Justice. This is seen as a direct response to the High Court of Justice rulings on Amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Bill. A day later, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of 138 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who have been held in Holot for over two years, prior to the High Court’s rejection of the 3rd Amendment, which ordered the release of all detainees.
Earlier this week, outgoing Finance Minister Yair Lapid said, “We have to treat refugees from Darfur as Holocaust survivors.” In that case, let’s not lock them up. The bill, hastily put together before impending Knesset dissolution, passed a key Knesset committee on Monday, paving the way to be voted into law.
While attention will focus on the upcoming Israeli elections of March 17th, we must not ignore what is happening now. These issues touch on the foundation of what it means to have a Jewish State and a Jewish society. Of course we will have our own opportunity to vote and have our voices heard in Israel. This matters, and we must stand up and be counted.
Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).
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(JTA) — An Israeli man studying for the rabbinate in New York was stabbed while praying at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn.
Levi Rosenviat, 22, who lives in the West Bank’s Gush Etzion bloc of settlements, was stabbed at 1:45 a.m. Tuesday in the neck and elsewhere in the synagogue of the building located in the Crown Heights neighborhood, according to reports. Rosenviat is reported to be in stable condition at Kings County Hospital.
He arrived in New York two weeks ago, according to the New York Daily News.
His alleged assailant, Calvin Peters, 51, was shot in the stomach by police and later died in the hospital. He reportedly entered the Chabad building shouting “I will kill the Jew! I want to kill the Jew!” according to the Daily News.
Peters had entered the building an hour earlier saying he was looking for a book, another Israeli student told the newspaper.
Police and security guards reportedly flooded the building moments after the attack. Peters initially put down his knife, but then picked it back up again. Police ordered Peters to drop the knife and shot him when he did not comply. A video of the encounter was posted by the Israeli news website 0404.
Police reportedly are calling the incident criminal, not terror-related, though with elements of a hate crime.
A Chabad spokesman told Israeli media that homeless men sometimes enter the world headquarters, which is open 24 hours a day, in order to get warm.
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(JTA) — Limor Livnat, Israel’s culture and sports minister, said she is quitting political life.
Livnat, 64, a Likud Knesset member since 1992 and the party’s highest-ranking female member for many years, made the announcement on Monday. She served as education minister from 1996 to 1999, and headed the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women.
She told Israel’s Channel 2 news that she wanted to move in “new directions,” the Times of Israel reported, but stressed that “the Likud remains my home.”
According to Haaretz, Livnat has been marginalized within her party in recent years because of her moderate positions. She has criticized the controversial Jewish nation-state bill and was the only Likud minister not to vote for it.
In a November interview with Army Radio, she criticized Likud’s move to the right.
“The Likud was always a right-center party and that’s what it needs to be,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are people in the Likud who are not moderate and are pushing the party to places I don’t want to see it.”
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Rabbi Jack Moline has left his post as director of the National Jewish Democratic Council after less than a year.Click here for the rest of the article...
WASHINGTON (JTA) — The National Jewish Democratic Council and its director, Rabbi Jack Moline, parted ways after less than a year.
Moline, a longtime rabbi in northern Virginia who was prominent in the Conservative movement and close to Obama administration figures, assumed the position at the beleaguered advocacy group in January of this year, and left by Nov. 18.
His absence was noticed only this week, when community figures noted to reporters that his name no longer appeared on the group’s correspondence.
An NJDC spokesman said the decision was mutual, and would not elaborate. Moline declined comment.
His tenure was not without controversy: Within weeks of taking the job, he sharply criticized the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee of “strong arm” tactics in pressuring Democrats in Congress to oppose President Obama’s Iran policies.
He eventually apologized to the AJC, but would not do so to AIPAC.
After the Democratic blowout in this year’s midterm elections, Moline told JTA that the party had not done enough to mobilize Jewish voters in key states.
The NJDC has in recent years lagged behind its GOP counterpart, the Republican Jewish Coalition, in raising funds.
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