The ancient Jewish sages Hillel and Shammai disagreed about how to light the candles of Chanukah. Shammai’s disciples believed that we should begin with lighting all eight (nine, including the shamash, the candle we use to light the others) and decrease by one each night of the holiday. Hillel’s followers argued that we should begin with one candle plus the shamash and add one each night.
Beit Hillel (the followers of Hillel) won that argument. But why is it important? Why don’t we just light all eight candles every night of this holiday that commemorates the Jews’ triumph for self-determination against a tyrant who wanted them to assimilate?
Every night of Chanukah, which begins this year on Sunday night, December 18 (on the Jewish calendar, the 25th of the month Kislev), our lights grow a little brighter. At this darkest time of year (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), we bring more light into the world every night with each additional candle. We place our Chanukiah (known to many as a menorah) in the window to publicly affirm the miraculous triumph of the few over the many, and of light and hope over darkness and despair. On the first night, we see the small glow of our first candles and welcome once again our time to celebrate wonders and miracles; on the eighth night, our Chanukiot blaze their brightest, dispelling the darkness and elevating our souls.
And so too, at this dark time when voices of hatred have been given license by Trump’s presidency to come into the mainstream, we must combat the rise in antisemitism by fighting back and adding light to our society. Fenton and our partners never walk away from the battles we constantly wage against racism and injustice. And we now see that despite Jewish tenacity against 2,000 years of persecution, expulsion and genocide, the age-old tropes and baseless hatred are surging in the U.S. We are seeing once again that when one group is “otherized,” all are at risk.
When Asians and Pacific Islanders were targeted in the U.S. because COVID-19 began in China, Fenton rallied with Stop AAPI Hate to change hearts and minds. When right-wing legislators targeted Black Americans with voter suppression legislation, Fenton elevated the work of Black Voters Matter and Forward Justice to call out this legally sanctioned racism. And we have partnered for many years with Facing History and Ourselves, an organization established for Holocaust education and that now offers a wide range of resources that use the lessons of history to challenge teachers and students to stand up to bigotry and hate.
While Chanukah commemorates the Maccabees’ military victory over those who sought to eliminate Jewish culture and religion, today we have other battle tools to combat antisemitism and mitigate it. Through our work with myriad organizations, we have learned the value of public education campaigns, mobilization to combat racism, bringing tolerance curricula into schools, and giving no quarter to those who make excuses for bigots. Just as those lessons have made Fenton a leader in taking on today’s toughest challenges, we can apply them to shine a light on antisemitism and elevate the organizations that are calling it out and educating the public about its damaging ripple effects.
Following the lead of Beit Hillel, let’s strive to continuously brighten the darkness. While antisemitism is hardly new to us, those of us steeped in the battles against other forms of bigotry are well-equipped to combat its latest incarnation here.
Chag Urim Sameach: Wishing those who celebrate a joyous festival of lights.