You might remember the story of Hanukkah in Billings, Montana in 1993. Years of anti-Semitic rhetoric, pamphlets, and talk from the local Ku Klux Klan chapter culminated in someone throwing a cinderblock through a Hanukkah-decorated window of a 5 year old Jewish child. There were about 50 Jewish families in this town of 80,000 mostly-white, mostly-Christian people. The Jews could have been terrorized into hiding, and indeed, they were advised by local police to take their Hanukkah decorations down and remove menorahs from their windows.
But instead of letting their Jewish neighbors live in fear and isolation, the people of Billings, Montana, embraced them. The Billings Gazette printed full-page, full-color menorahs in the paper, and in a town whose Jewish population numbered about 150 people, there were 10,000 Menorahs in the windows of homes, businesses, churches, cars and public places. Car and store windows were broken and some of them were defaced. But the people of Billings were resolute that hate would not rule the day in their town.
You may have heard that over this past weekend, the largest Persian synagogue (Nessah Synagogue) in Los Angeles was vandalized – pages ripped from siddurim (prayer books), Torah scrolls ripped and unfurled on the floor, tallises and overturned chairs strewn all over the sanctuary. It was the second anti-Semitic attack in just that past week alone, after the Kosher market shooting in Jersey City. We are again living in times when anti-Semitic attacks are frighteningly commonplace. This is not just coincidence – it is entirely related to the highest offices in our government supporting people and policies that normalize the othering of non-white groups, not to mention, that peddle in anti-Semitic rhetoric themselves.
I want to quote my friend, Rabbi Michael Latz, at Shir Tikva Congregation in St. Paul, MN, who wrote, after the Nessah Synagogue vandalism, “For the human who vandalized the synagogue and desecrated the Torah, I pray for your soul. And as part of your repentance, I’d like to invite you to synagogue, to see how we share our heartbreak and our joys, how we celebrate the stories of our past as we seek to forge a future where everyone lives with dignity, with enough food in their bellies, with a good education and loving home and free of fear…join us. There’s a seat for you…. I’m angry at you for doing this. And deeply sad that you violated a synagogue and our holy book. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that when we lift the Torah into the air, we touch the heavens and dream a new world into being, overflowing with love and mutual respect and compassion.”
The central mitzvah of Hanukkah is to light up the darkest time of year with candles – one for each night of the week, and a little extra. “Pirsume Nissa,’ means to “publicize the miracle.” It’s the reason why Jews put menorahs out in the window, in public space. Eight days of defying darkness, not just for ourselves, but for other people, too – whether casual passers-by or other “others” who need our light. We stand at Hanukkah in solidarity and allyship with all people who want to live a world free of intimidation and fear, in which all of us can shine our unique light. I love the story of Billings, because it reminds us that in our choice to defy darkness, we inspire others to do the same, and all of us become enveloped in a more loving world.
“Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit,” says the living God. That’s from the Prophet Zacharia, from the Haftara we read during Hanukkah. Let’s harness the spirit of this holiday and light up the world together.
Love, Rabbis Lizzi, Lauren and Jeff