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6 NoVA-based rabbis share insight ahead of Hanukkah

Before taking out your menorahs for the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, these rabbis of Northern Virginia share one common sentiment of the centuries-old celebration: hope.

young boy lighting menorah
© famveldman / stock.adobe.com

The Jewish festival of lights known as Hanukkah begins the evening of Sunday, Dec. 22, continuing for eight straight nights through Monday, Dec. 30. While the annual holiday is typically celebrated in Northern Virginia and beyond with dreidel spinning and latke eating, there is much more to Hanukkah that many are not aware of. 

To start, the word Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word for “dedication,” or “inauguration,” pairing well with the events that made lighting a menorah (a candelabrum with seven or nine branches) a tradition in second century BCE. 

The holiday commemorates the bravery and triumph of a group of Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees in reclaiming their temple from the Greek-Syrians, both physically and spiritually. When the unlikely group of soldiers sought to light the menorah of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem following victory, they found only enough olive oil to last one day. Miraculously, the candles stayed lit for eight full nights, thus creating the centuries-old tradition of lighting a menorah for eight consecutive nights a year. 

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To honor Hanukkah, we chatted with rabbis of various congregations in the Northern Virginia region about what one historic proverb means to them, common misconceptions of the holiday and how each one celebrates Hanukkah on an annual basis. Find out more, below. 

What does the proverb, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness,” mean to you?

Rabbi David Kalender of Congregation Olam Tikvah
“On each night of Hanukkah, we add another candle and bring a little more light and warmth to our world. It’s a powerful reminder that when each of us commits to making our society a warmer, more welcoming and more enlightened place, together we brighten the dark corners of our anxious world.”

Rabbi Michael G. Holzman of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation
“To me, that line means what was on the wall of the academy of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: Jews do not despair. Jews never despair. Our history has taught us that human beings are capable of unimaginable evil action, but that we persist as a people because we have hope. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has taught, hope is not optimism—the expectation that good things will happen. Hope is the belief that through our commitment, beliefs and action, we can improve the world.”

Rabbi Kenneth Block of Temple Beth Torah
“The story of Hanukkah is about a group that held onto their beliefs when a dominant system around them was repressive. They succeeded because they stayed together and didn’t fight among themselves. This phrase correlates with that, because it symbolizes a time of hope. The few against the many, might be the most important aspect of Hanukkah. The ideas and values of a small group prevail over a larger injustice; that’s what it’s all about.”

Rabbi Amy J. Sapowith of Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation
“To me, ‘A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness,’ means a little bit of hope, inspiration and love can be more powerful than despair.”

Rabbi Darryl Crystal of Temple B’nai Shalom
“When I think of light pushing away darkness, the first thing that comes to mind is a time I celebrated Hanukkah in Jerusalem. In Israel, when people light their hanukkiah (Hebrew word for menorah), they put them outside. They are placed in glass boxes, it’s not like in the states. As you walk from the Western Wall through the Old City to get back home, particularly if you don’t know your way, you are following the light of all these Hanukkah menorahs. It’s so inspiring.”

Rabbi Bruce Aft of Congregation Adat Reyim
“Lighting one candle can eradicate the darkness. There’s a line that says part of the Jewish responsibility is to be a light under the nations and I’m a believer that in a world that seems dark a lot of the time, one light can amend that. It’s all about the power of one: It just takes one single small voice in the world to make a difference. In Judaism, if you save one life you save the rest of the world.”

What are some common misconceptions you’ve noticed here in NoVA that you’d like to combat about Hanukkah?

Rabbi David Kalender of Congregation Olam Tikvah
“Americans tend to assume that Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent to Christmas. While Christmas is at the very center of Christianity, Hanukkah is an important, but relatively minor, holiday on the Jewish calendar. I would love for Americans of all faiths to learn more about our more important holidays (Passover, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc.).”

Rabbi Kenneth Block of Temple Beth Torah
“It is not Jewish Christmas. It does fair however to winter solstice, which both Christmas and Hanukkah fall on in the calendar year, not by accident. They are about faith, hope and change, which all center on light shading away the darkness. There’s a human commonality to celebrate light when there is dark, and both holidays touch on something different. For Jews, it’s the religious and overall freedom to be. In both, you bring light into the world and with each one there’s a different result. It’s important to recognize that there are many ways to do the same thing, but the most vital aspect to agree upon is that we want to make things better.”

What is your favorite Hanukkah tradition that you do each year?

Rabbi David Kalender of Congregation Olam Tikvah
“The Hanukkah menorah is lit for ‘pirsuma nisa’—to make the miracle known. For that reason, menorahs are typically displayed in a window. At our home, we have a special ‘Jerusalem Menorah’ that can be hung outside our home so our neighbors are able to enjoy the additional lights each night.”

Rabbi Michael G. Holzman of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation
“My favorite Hanukkah tradition is spending Hanukkah in Israel.  I can’t do it every year, but there is nothing more educational and affirming for a diaspora Jew than to be invited by a group of strangers to light the candles in a hotel lobby, restaurant or supermarket. No Hanukkah better than that.”

Rabbi Kenneth Block of Temple Beth Torah
“Since all the kids have moved out and we don’t always get to spend it with the grandchildren, it’s changed dramatically. Hanukkah has never really been that big of a holiday, rather it’s on the minor holiday list. There’s no special services, the only prayers are over the candles. It is developed over bringing family together and it’s centered around children. We have several Hanukkah parties at my temple in Chantilly and one time we all tried to have an adult-only one, and it just didn’t work. It’s not that kind of a holiday. This year, we will eat latkes and light the candles.”

Rabbi Amy J. Sapowith of Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation
“At BCRC we will celebrate Hanukkah with a party during Sunday school hours. We hear and sing traditional Hanukkah songs, play dreidel, make crafts, eat potato latkes and jelly doughnuts. Special this year will be a visit from an Israeli who will share with us Hanukkah traditions in Israel.  We will also celebrate the sixth night of Hanukkah at Friday evening Shabbat services. Everyone brings in their Hanukkah menorahs and we light the candles together. That is an especially beautiful and moving celebration. We see Hanukkah menorahs of all different shapes and designs, candles of different lengths and colors, and there is a lot of light!”

Rabbi Darryl Crystal of Temple B’nai Shalom
“I go to Israel every December and this year, the beginning of my trip coincides with the beginning of Hanukkah, which is great. The other thing that I find is just the wonder of the hanukkiah. Whenever you see it, it fills us with hope. It’s not necessary for the big community events, but when I am at work with the folks in the building it’s nice at sunset to light the menorah. It just brightens up our world.”

Rabbi Bruce Aft of Congregation Adat Reyim
“Hanukkah has eight nights and something we do at our congregation is on one of the nights we call it, ‘One night for others.’ People are supposed to bring or do something to help make one night of Hanukkah better for others. Whether it’s clothing, food, money, it’s all donated to the Jewish Social Services, or a group called Echo in Springfield. It’s just a tradition of helping others. My wife and I do it personally too. I will be going to Walmart for a layaway program, where we go and find things that seem like necessities and we pay that bill for someone. They don’t know who did it, but they get the gift and that’s a nice thought.”

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