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Chanukah Acts: Energizing and Sustaining Jewish Commitment

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

December 14, 2012

The Chanukah Acts series answers the question, “What can parents and Jewish educators learn from [Chanukah] about how to inspire others to more active participation in Jewish life and connection to the State of Israel?” This post is by Jonathan Cannon, Head of School at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.
By: Jonathan Cannon
Just for a moment, let’s compare and contrast the festivals of Chanukah and Purim. If Chanukah is a festival celebrated quietly in the home and centered around a relatively unknown text (although a familiar narrative), then Purim is the polar opposite. The Book of Esther is one of the most well-known texts in the Tanach, and the celebration of the festival is raucous and public. Both have their place in Jewish observance, and both have a critically important message for Jewish life, learning and connection to Israel. There are times when an energizing event (a Purim) is just what is needed to generate Jewish activism and identity. This could be a visit to the Western Wall, a community-wide celebration of a milestone or a famous speaker. It is also evident in more challenging events such as a response to the attack on Israel (the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars elicited the largest outpouring of unifying community activism in the last 50 years).  Although these events can be powerful, after the immediate experience dissipates, most of the participants will disappear. The event was a moment in time, and the connection was fleeting, because typically, there was no identifiable way to capture the energy and help the participant to continue on his or her own Jewish and Israel journey.
That is when the lessons of Chanukah can take over from those of Purim, something I learned from personal experience. My earliest involvement with the UK Hillel Foundation was attending a rally against the United Nations vote to equate Zionism with racism. As we left the rally, there was a student handing out food and flyers listing events that Hillel was facilitating as follow-ups from educational and political perspectives. I attended one of these activities, and from there I became active in Hillel. My first professional position was as Hillel’s director of education. That journey was my “Chanukah experience.” If Purim represents spontaneity, then Chanukah symbolizes ongoing commitment. Chanukah is characterized by the mitzvah of candle lighting, which is not just a moment in time, but a process that expands in volume and intensity as the festival progresses.  Experiential events are essential to create energy and identity, but alone they are unlikely to generate the staying power for long-term engagement. It is Jewish day schooling, Jewish camping, extended trips to Israel and active campus programs that provide an ongoing framework for learning and absorbing Jewish texts and traditions, for mastering Hebrew language and for developing a connection with Israel that is reinforced day in and day out.  In day school, these messages permeate the hallways and classrooms and they are forged in the relationships between teachers and students.
It is no coincidence that the Jewish celebration of miracles includes both Purim and Chanukah. Our challenge and responsibility as Jewish educators is to integrate them both – to make sure that we create inspiring and compelling moments and that we provide the environment to propel that instantaneous moment of connection to a consistent and enduring sense of belonging.
Jonathan Cannon is Head of School at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD.

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