As hard as it may be to believe, Chanukah has arrived. It feels like just yesterday that I was saying goodbye to my kids as they were on their way to Camp Ramah for the summer. The Festival of Lights has held a special place in my heart as I have fond memories of the holiday as a child with my family and now with my own children. One particular Chanukah, during my junior year of college, changed my view of the Jewish world and set my career on it's current trajectory.
I was fortunate enough to travel to Moscow on a UJA Campus Fellowship. Communism had recently come to and end and after seventy years, Jews were reconnecting with their ancestry. Many of our college aged peers were finding out for the first time that they were in fact Jewish. I, and 34 other campus leaders, from the U.S. spent 3 days meeting and working with students from the University of Moscow Hillel, helping them understand (globally, locally or theologically) what it meant to build Jewish life on campus and connect with the Jewish world.
After joining with hundreds of Russian Jews to light a three story menorah in front of the Bolshoi Theater; we paired off to have dinner with the students at their homes. The home was a three room apartment, including the kitchen, that housed a family of six. The meal was mostly cold and pickled as the oven was primarily used for heat, not cooking. After the meal the patriarch of the family asked me to join him in front of a small cabinet where he pointed out nine small, circular burn marks. He explained that prior to the fall of communism the family would light the menorah with short candles, place it on a shelf in the pantry and close the doors to hide the light. At that moment I realized that the family had risked their home - let alone their lives - to celebrate Chanukah. A holiday, whose meaning in my life, was always on the “B-side” of the Jewish calendar.
That Chanukah in Moscow was a turning point in my life as it compelled me to seek a career where I could ensure that Jews, no matter were they lived, would never again feel forced to hide their heritage. To ensure that Jewish families could, as my family does today, place their menorah proudly in the front window of their home. This is what drove me to a career in the Jewish Community and specifically to my current work with the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas. Through the involvement and activism of the Las Vegas Jewish community, the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas works to ensure that Jews, no matter their geography or station in life, can celebrate, can learn, can grieve, and can simply live as Jews.
My college experience also changed my view of Chanukah. My wife and I now teach our children that Chanukah is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. It is one of the times of the year when we have an opportunity to bring light to people who may be experiencing darkness in their lives or situation. We place our menorah in our front window in the hopes that the light and warmth it emits will reach those who need it most.
If you would like to learn more about how Federation will bring light and warmth to those in need this Chanukah, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. A very happy, healthy and peaceful Chanukah to you and your family.