Shar­ing the light to il­lu­mi­nate the dark­ness

The hol­i­day re­minds Jews across the na­tion to unite and lean on one an­other for sup­port in times of tribu­la­tion

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BELIEF - By Lind­say Pey­ton COR­RE­SPON­DENT

The To­rah be­gins with the start of ex­is­tence, when God com­mands, “Let there be light.”

“That’s how light comes in to push away the dark­ness,” Rabbi Jill Levy said. “And I don’t think it’s a co­in­ci­dence that God does that through words.”

The leader at the Eve­lyn Ruben­stein Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter is fo­cus­ing on the power of words dur­ing the Hanukkah hol­i­day, which she ex­plained is all about light and il­lu­mi­nat­ing the dark­ness.

In the dark­est time of year, Levy said, the Jewish tra­di­tion calls for light­ing can­dles in cel­e­bra­tion of a mir­a­cle — a flame that did not ex­tin­guish against all odds.

Jewish Hous­to­ni­ans will cel­e­brate Hanukkah in dif­fer­ent ways across the city from Sun­day through Dec. 10.

There are var­i­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the hol­i­day story and sym­bol­ism of the meno­rah lights, Rabbi Adri­enne Scott of Con­gre­ga­tion Beth Is­rael said.

“Ba­si­cally, we look at the light as a story of sur­vival,” she said. “It’s a story of the abil­ity for Jewish peo­ple to live freely, to cel­e­brate hav­ing ac­cess — on a global level — to prac­tice our faith.”

Hanukkah means “ded­i­ca­tion” in He­brew, and the tale be­hind the eight holy nights cen­ters on the reded­i­ca­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple in Jerusalem.

The sa­cred space was des­e­crated by the sol­diers

of An­ti­ochus IV Epiphanes, who or­dered Jews to give up their reli­gion and wor­ship Greek gods in­stead.

Jewish war­rior Ju­dah Mac­cabee or­ga­nized a re­volt — and re­gained con­trol of the tem­ple. In or­der to clean and re­build the sanc­tu­ary, he lit a can­de­labrum to il­lu­mi­nate the work but only had enough oil to burn for one day.

“That’s when the mir­a­cle comes in,” Scott said.

Ac­cord­ing to the Tal­mud, the flames con­tin­ued for eight nights in­stead of one.

“This story and les­son are about ris­ing above those who wish to per­se­cute us,” Scott said.

Jews are asked to light a “hanukkiyah,” a spe­cial eight-can­dle meno­rah for Hanukkah, and place it in a win­dow to send out a mes­sage to the out­side world, she said.

“You’re ad­ver­tis­ing the mir­a­cle,” Scott said. “We’re say­ing, ‘We’re still alive and well.’ ”

Rabbi Brian Strauss of Con­gre­ga­tion Beth Yeshu­run is drawn to the sym­bol­ism of putting meno­rahs in a vis­i­ble place. “You’re sup­posed to not only pub­li­cize the mir­a­cle, but also you’re telling the world, don’t lose hope,” he said.

Hanukkah is a hol­i­day that re­minds Jews to cel­e­brate re­li­gious free­dom, Strauss added.

“We have to con­tinue to fight so that all peo­ple have that right,” he said. “As Jews, we’ve known so many dark and dif­fi­cult times, but we never lose our faith and our hope that good will over­come evil, that peo­ple will find the re­li­gious free­dom they de­serve.”

Since the shoot­ing in late Oc­to­ber that left 11 peo­ple dead at Tree of Life Syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh, Strauss has seen an uptick in at­ten­dance.

“Peo­ple are show­ing that they aren’t afraid,” he said. “We can’t be afraid of the dark forces of racism, prej­u­dice and anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Gideon Estes of Con­gre­ga­tion Or Ami is also drawn to the mes­sage of the pub­lic dis­play of the meno­rahs.

“We show this light. We don’t hide it but dis­play it,” he said. “In a time of at­tacks, your ini­tial re­ac­tion is to cower, but our job is to say, ‘No, we’re here. We’re a beau­ti­ful mo­saic of hu­man­ity. We’re go­ing to shine in our dif­fer­ences.’ ”

Scott said that in the wake of the shoot­ing, the hol­i­day re­minds Jews across the na­tion of the need to unite and lean on each other for sup­port — and also to re­main proud of their her­itage and tra­di­tions.

“It isn’t the first time we’ve stum­bled,” she said. “We’re taught that when we have to stum­ble, we have to stand again. The meno­rah is a pow­er­ful re­minder of that.”

Scott added Jewish peo­ple are called to light the meno­rah and cel­e­brate Hanukkah to­gether — even in dif­fi­cult times.

“Our cal­en­dar con­tin­ues,” she said. “Don’t let the light go out. We have to stand in sol­i­dar­ity, and we have to ob­serve this sa­cred time. We owe it to all those who came be­fore us.”

Estes said that Hanukkah is also a “reded­i­ca­tion” to the faith. “We’re able to reded­i­cate our­selves to the fact that we’re proud to live our lives as Jews,” he said. “The light in the dark is a bea­con against hate, against evil.”

Con­gre­ga­tion Ori Ami hosts “Meno­rah Mad­ness” on the eighth night of Hanukkah each year. Estes said ta­bles are full of com­pletely lit hanukkiyahs from Hous­ton’s Jewish com­mu­nity.

“They’re all fully ablaze, and it’s beau­ti­ful to see, to al­low that light to shine in,” he said. “It’s a light of love and fam­ily, shin­ing out to the world.”

This year, the can­dles will re­mind Estes of those il­lu­mi­nated for the post Pitts­burgh vigil. “It’s a light of hope and sol­i­dar­ity against ig­no­rance and mur­der,” he said. “I’ll be think­ing of all those can­dles and how we’re adding more light to the world.”

Levy ex­plained that Jews cel­e­brate Hanukkah by light­ing one can­dle the first night — and the num­ber in­creases each even­ing — in cel­e­bra­tion of the eight nights the oil burned.

“You don’t want to de­crease the light you bring into the world,” she said. “You only want it to be brighter and stronger. We’re al­ways in­creas­ing the light. You can only in­crease ho­li­ness.”

This Hanukkah, Levy is ask­ing mem­bers of the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter to con­sider their speech — and whether it adds to the good in the world or has a more shad­owy ef­fect.

“Words are very pow­er­ful,” she said. “They can bring light into some­one’s life or dark­ness. Let’s think more deeply about how we talk to each other.”

Levy will be post­ing this mes­sage in a blog on the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter’s web­site — and the teach­ing will also be part of lessons taught there dur­ing the hol­i­days.

Ev­ery night dur­ing Hanukkah, the cen­ter will host a can­dle light­ing cer­e­mony. The cen­ter will host Jewish Cul­turefest — 1-6 p.m. Fri­day at Levy Park, 3801 East­side — with mu­sic, art, food and light­ing of the Hanukkah can­dles.

Rabbi Strauss asks his con­gre­ga­tion to con­tinue to per­form more deeds of lov­ing kind­ness this Hanukkah.

Each night of Hanukkah, Estes sends an in­spi­ra­tional email to his con­gre­gants. “Let’s share our in­ner light,” he said. “We have gifts to share with the world. Let that light shine. Fill the world with greater good­ness.”

El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Im­manuel Davis, 2, plays with drei­dels at the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter. The cel­e­bra­tion of Hanukkah be­gins Sun­day even­ing and runs through Dec. 10.

Pho­tos by El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Jack­son Rock­off, 4, of Hous­ton dec­o­rates a pa­per drei­del at the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter.

Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish hol­i­day, is cel­e­brated with a nightly meno­rah light­ing, spe­cial prayers and foods.

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