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At the Confluence of Growing Chanukah Light & Rising Antisemitism

The relationships that I am invited into with my b’nei mitzvah students makes my heart soar. Their curiosity, creativity, different learning styles, and Jewish pride add a layer of deep meaning to my life as an adult, parent, and steward of our North American Jewish future, let alone my role as their rabbi. I am honored to still be in contact with nearly every student I have worked with on their journey toward becoming part of the adult Jewish community, in terms of their ability to perform mitzvot on behalf of the community. I love hearing from students who reach out from time to time to ask questions, share achievements (which make me kvell with delight), discuss courses they are taking or ideas they have heard, or to ask for assistance. It is a privilege to be considered a part of their network of support and care and their rabbi.

This year I am really relishing the opportunity to study with a new crop of students – all brilliant girls who are mature, talented, thoughtful, and brave. This week, during Chanukah, I had phenomenal lessons with both NB and PG. As part of our time together, we lit the Chanukiyah as it was dark in Columbus and the sun had set in Nashville – on the second night with N, and on the fourth night with PG’s entire family whom I have know and worked with toward lifecycle rituals and Jewish community-building since before both children were born. And, in the midst of this week’s Chanukah light and learning, one of my students needed to take a break because of a VERY unfortunate and all too common (these days) occurrence of neo-Nazi hate speech in a chat group and, then, a “Heil Hitler” salute with outstretched arm performed in front of her in school (a school for gifted children, no less).

We are living in politically polarized times. It is a human behavior we see repeatedly in the history of civilization to demonize “the other” as a way of elevating or empowering ourselves in a twisted and deeply unhealthy way. When we “otherize,” we create fertile ground for false stories to take hold and to be perpetuated for millennia (for example, the narrative that “the Jews killed Jesus” which held as a story until Popes and Protestant leaders began denouncing this narrative in the 20th century!).

And, the insidiousness of antisemitism is that, in difficult times, anti-Jewish ideas, speech, and activity come at us from both sides of the political divide. We are more familiar with navigating it from the right, from the fascism of the last century and the neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and nationalist ideologies that link back to the lies upon which Hitler relied to very easily light a flame of hate in Western Europe. But that fuse was so easily lit because of otherizing and lies that gave rise to antipathy toward Jews in Europe long before Hitler. He drew on antisemitic tropes used to make us scapegoats in times of scarcity, deny us citizenship in European nation-states, and keep us out of universities, clubs, etc. These tropes began millennia before and were used in the Middle Ages to fueled pogroms, blood-libel stories and trials, and they grew from the kinds of division and ugliness we see in today’s world.

Over the centuries, Jews have been used by those in positions of power in ways specifically designed to place blame for unpopular edicts and policies on “the Jews,” leading to skepticism and worse from other marginalized groups. Today, these tropes are still being used and are creating divisions in progressive spaces. I recognize and daily elevate in my consciousness and actions, the insidious forms of racism, homophobia and transphobia, sexism, xenophobia, displacement and economic disparity that must be addressed if we are to build a democratic and equitable society. Similarly, and without creating a culture of “competitive oppression” in intersectional spaces, it is important for progressive Jews spaces to improve our skills in address the overt and covert antisemitism that is emerging more and more in places where, during my lifetime, we have felt relatively safe.

At the same time that my middle school student was being traumatized by white nationalist antisemitic rhetoric and behavior, a former student (now a high school senior) is feeling demonized by the left for his support of Israel and a Jewish nation’s right to self-determination. Antisemitic tropes on the left are harder for many of us to process. We (Jews in America) have always felt we have a home in progressive politics and social justice movements. Yet we are increasingly experiencing antisemitic rhetoric in these spaces too. As difficult as this is for progressive adults to process and respond to, our kids are even less equipped to navigate the conflation of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish speech that has become commonplace in colleges and universities, high schools and middle schools, and various spaces where many of us gather to address issues like immigration, environmentalism, and economic and social justice, equity, and inclusion.

I am grateful for the safe-space I have found in a cohort of rabbis and cantors organized by T’ruah to discuss antisemitism in its current forms in the United States and how we can provide meaningful pastoral care to those who seek it within our communities as well as how we can address it in the communities around us. This means, first, having the space to breathe deeply and exhale, learn and process with knowledgeable and compassionate colleagues, and practice ways of leading with humility and confidence. [For a “brief” history of antisemitism, click here.]

With a deep breath, I take comfort in the Chanukah candles burning in my window as I type. They reflect light and holiness toward me and out into the world. They are designed to be seen by the world beyond my window and to be lights of inspiration, hope and peace.

My Chanukiyah, purchased in Tel Aviv, 2016; Lit in celebration of the fourth night of Chanukah in Nashville, 2021.

Each individual candle reminds me that we all play a very small AND very meaningful and significant roll by:

  • countering messages of hate,
  • “calling in” (creating space for meaningful conversation) rather than “calling out” (blaming) those who are operating on false information or limited and twisted understanding of complex topics that we, too, struggle to wrap our heads around, and
  • helping others to grow their understanding of antisemitism.

We also must develop more safe, communal, Jewish spaces to unpack and discuss ways in which some of us are triggered while others have different thresholds around speech and activity that may or may not be labeled as antisemitic. Conversations within our own communities can become as divisive, political, and painful as those in the larger surrounding culture and this does not serve us or our future.

As we are reminded as part of the ritual of lighting our Chanukiyot:

These lights, we kindle for the miracles and the wonders and the salvations and the victories* that You performed for our ancestors in their day at this season, through Your holy servants and in every generation of Your people, through all who have kindled lights of inspiration, hope, and peace. All eight days of Chanukah, these candles are holy. We are not permitted to use their light, but only to look at them and to appreciate and to praise Your great name for Your miracles, Your wonders, and Your salvations.

Talmud Soferim 20:6

May our lights (and the darkness in between) help us to grow inspiration, hope, and peace. May we lift up the holiness in one another and in the world. Wishing you a meaningful, enlightening, and delightful Chanukah,

Rabbi Jessica

*Hanukkah draws on diverse narratives from Jewish history and legend. Some modern versions of this prayer express thanks for nekhamot (comfort) in lieu of milkhamot (wars or victories) to emphasize a message of peace. [Quoted text: Talmud Soferim 20:6 with credit to Ritualwell for translation and this inserted suggestion around whether we commemorate war victories in our celebration of the holiday.]

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