Hanukkah, one of the most widely-celebrated Jewish holidays in the United States, brings questions into the home of many Jewish families. How does this holiday – that we celebrate only once a year – align with our own personal identities? It awakens questions about Jewish identity in a celebration of religious freedom and opens us to awareness of our own light as we commemorate a miracle by spreading the light.
For children and their parents, Hanukkah is a container for Jewish pride. On all eight days, we take time to bask in the lights, admire the candles and wonder: How can we, with Menorahs in our windows, experience pride in who we are – and light inside our hearts?
As a Jewish educator, this is a never-ending question for me, particularly when I face my Hebrew school students and consider how to make an impact. Hanukkah particularly, with its focus on light, reminds me, and my students, to focus on the light we possess inside and the light we shine outwards in our lives.
I teach in the “Seekers” holistic Hebrew school at Romemu, an experiential Jewish community that aims to “elevate and transform individuals and communities into more compassionate human beings.” A “mitzvah,” defined traditionally as “commandment,” is an embodied act that increases holiness: It might be praying with feeling, observing the Shabbat as a day of rest, or reciting a blessing before eating food.
My colleague and the Director of Youth and Family Education at Romemu, Rabbi Shoshana Leis, reminds me how important it is that Hebrew School not only be confined to the home – but that our consciousness of the Divine take place everywhere. Furthermore, our consciousness of the Divine should not be limited to religious practice. So when we speak about Hanukkah, we speak about the mitzvah of spreading light, and of being light in all aspects of our lives.
This year we lit our Hanukkah candles during class, sang some songs, and ate latkes. Then, I turned to my beautiful, shining teachers – the seven and eight year olds who have taught me more about God than the books ever could – and we spoke about where we are going to shine our light this year.
Some said “being nicer to siblings,” others, “listening to their parent.” Some, with a more scientific bent, spoke about light bulbs, candles and lamps, and others, with a philosophical view, spoke about faith and pride. Some said “God is a feeling,” that “God is a sense of what’s right,” that “God lives on in other Human Beings,” and pledged to be more aware of that light in their lives.
Along with traditions of mitzvot and Jewish holidays, it’s important to me that the kids come away with a sense of being Jewish as a focus on transmitting values that have stood with us as a nation since the beginning. This year, Romemu teamed up with PJ Library and Tkiya to craft a series of experiential holiday programs, Love in Action, focusing on bringing those concepts to families through arts and crafts, storytelling, music, and of course, traditional foods. The Shine Your Light Celebration will include a visit to the New Jewish Home, where students will light candles together with the elders: L’dor v’Dor, passing on wisdom from generation to generation; and spreading light across age divides.
It’s makes me wonder, and ask other educators and parents:
How are we encouraging our children to shine their light? Are we reminding them of their inherent beauty, or are we criticizing them and dimming the light, slowly, when it doesn’t fit society’s standards? Are we giving them ways to think outside themselves and their experience and open their hearts to others – sharing, volunteering, helping or donating – so they can see the impact of their light? Are we shining our own Light, as parents, teachers, siblings, caregivers, and setting an example for the rest?
I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach and facilitate in an experiential, interactive Jewish learning space. This weekend, when I sit with the children, we’ll be learning to give gifts as well as receive, we’ll be setting intentions and finding ways to create Love in Action, and Shine more light in our communities.
And finally, when we sing, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine,” we’re going to mean every single word.
The “Love in Action: Shine Your Light Family Hanukkah Celebration” will take place on Sunday, December 17 at 3.00pm on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, details here:
Rishe Groner is the founder of TheGene-Sis.com, a non-denominational approach to spirituality and self-transformation based on feminine and Jewish mysticism. She is from Australia and lives in Brooklyn.