On Monday morning I received an email from Makom Community, where my kids go for Jewish enrichment two afternoons a week. It began, “I have sad news to share. Over the weekend, our store front windows on Sansom Street were graffitied with the words “Free Palestine” and another graffiti tag.”
The email itself was full of care. I am so grateful to Beverly Socher-Lerner and the entire staff at Makom for their graceful leadership during this time. Makom’s response was beautiful. Their team of educators met and they created signage to hang over the graffiti which says, “We all deserve peace and safety. Happy Chanukah. Let your light shine.” I felt both proud and comforted to know my kids would walk into that learning space and be greeted by those words.
I was startled by the incident. I thought of Kol Tzedek’s windows and the vulnerability of moving into our own building in this climate of increased antisemitism. I was deeply comforted when CAIR-Philadelphia, one of our organizing partners, posted this in response to the vandalism at Makom:
“CAIR-Philadelphia decries and stands firmly against recent defacing of Makom Community in Center City, Philadelphia. We extend solidarity and support to the Jewish community of Makom Community and the families of the childcare center they house.
“Targeting Jewish institutions or defacing their property for the actions of the IDF and the right-wing Israeli government is antisemitic and contrary to the values of those who seek freedom and dignity for Palestinians. It also does not do justice to the many Jewish community members who are actively working on the frontlines of the #CeasfireNow movement.”
This statement made me feel safer and seen. It does not however transform the truth that there is antisemitism on the left and on the right, in our city and in the U.S. Congress. This continues to scare me and makes it hard to trust. I care so deeply about Jewish safety. I care so deeply about Jews and Judaism. It is what I breathe and maybe even why I breathe.
In many ways I understand that the profound divisions amongst Jews, and the differences in our political responses to this moment, all source from the same core human need to feel safe in this world.
The vandalism at Makom immediately returned me to a very ancient argument about Hanukkah. There is a debate in the Talmud about the core mitzvah of Hanukkah. Some argue it is the lighting of the menorah, after all the blessing concludes “L’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah” which would suggest the essential spiritual practice is to light the hanukkah candles.
Others argue it is not just the lighting of the menorah, but also and most importantly, doing so publicly in a way that pirsumei nisa - publicizes the miracle. For this reason the Talmud teaches that the commandment of lighting Hanukkah candles should be performed “between sunset and the time when feet disappear from the marketplace” (b. Shabbat 21b). Which is to say in public at a time when people are around to see it. This is a bold spiritual instruction that reorients our potential responses to antisemitism and unsafety.
Even in a moment where antisemitism and Islamophobia are present threats in our communities, where our Jewish institutions are being vandalized and our Muslim neighbors fear for their lives, we are instructed to publicly light our menorahs and spread hope.
The rabbis do take some precaution and advise that in times of extreme danger we can move the menorah from the public square to our window, and if needed to an even more discreet location. It is hard to be Jewish in public at this time for so many different reasons. If this feels appropriate to you this year, I hope you will trust yourself and feel supported by the wisdom of Jewish tradition.
There is something very visible about being Jewish at Hanukkah. It is an offering of hope we make not just to ourselves, but to each other and to our neighbors too. Even more so, it provides an ancient Jewish vision of safety that points us towards interdependence, towards courage and towards one another.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.