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Chanukah Greetings from Our Head of School

As our Chanukah celebrations draw near, I’ve been thinking about the challenges Jewish educators have in teaching children about our holidays. And specifically, how can we make the story of the Maccabees and ancient Chanukah rituals relevant to our young students, living in secular society in the 21st century? This year, of course, there is an added challenge: How do we overcome the limitations imposed by the pandemic and still make our holiday celebrations meaningful?

It occurs to me that the answer lies in some of the central themes of the upcoming festival. In fact, some of the key values and character traits that were so important to the Maccabees and Second Temple-era Jews resonate clearly today as we confront our modern pandemic.

The first of these traits is perseverance. The Maccabees stuck to their beliefs and Jewish identity, even as they sensed growing assimilation into Greek culture. Outnumbered, they fought for their culture, way of life and physical survival. That determination is no less needed today as we struggle to stave off “COVID fatigue” and stay the course of the numerous public-health restrictions imposed over many months. The Maccabees prevailed in the end, and so, too, will we if we persevere in our commitment to our community’s health and safety.

Secondly, like the Maccabees, modern pandemic fighters live by the maxim of taking things one day at a time. Upon rededicating the temple, our ancestors found there wasn’t enough oil to keep the Ner Tamid — the eternal light — lit until more oil could be obtained. But rather than just give up, they lit the lamp anyway. They decided to do what they could at that moment and have faith things would work out over time.

Today, we face similar uncertainty about the future. We don’t know how the pandemic will develop, when vaccines will be available to us, and when we’ll be able to return to a more “normal” lifestyle. In effect, we don’t know when we’ll be able to fully rededicate the temple of our past lives. We, too, have no choice but to take things one day at a time, to make the best of the current situation, and to have faith that things will improve.

Finally, to me, Chanukah represents a sense of optimism and building toward a better future. Two thousand years ago, Rabbis Shamai and Hillel famously argued about how the Chanukiah should be lit. Shamai felt that eight flames should be kindled on the first night, with one fewer lit each subsequent night. Hillel, however, believed that we should start with one flame and add one each night through the eight days of the celebration. As usual, Hillel won the argument and set the ritual our people have followed for centuries.

With the addition of each candle, the holiday crescendos in beauty and light. Each night is more dramatic than the next and anticipation builds toward the grand finale on the eighth night. The darkest nights of the year are illuminated by our holiday celebrations and we allow ourselves to think about the lengthening days and the hope of spring.

As we near the break from school and winter solstice, let us take lessons from our ancestors: continue to persevere in the fight against the pandemic, take it one day at a time, and focus on the light in our homes and in our lives.

Chag Urim Same’ach!

Benjy Cohen

Head of School