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Dear Friends,

I’ve had this gut feeling for some time that lighting the Hanukkah menorah will feel different for me this year. This morning I finally realized why.

When the pandemic first began there was a Hanukkah-related teaching from the Talmud that offered powerful “advice” and guided many of the decisions we made. It states,

“It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah light at the entrance to one’s house outside. If he lives in an upper chamber (second floor), he should place it in the window closest to the public thoroughfare.”

The text then continues,

“But in a time of danger he should place it on his table, and that will be sufficient.” (Talmud Shabbat 21b)

In other words, the Talmud laid out the proper way to observe the Festival, but then recognizing the nature of Jewish life and the frequent threats to it throughout our history, added a caveat. If observing the Festival the “proper way” posed a threat to an individual or community, we were still required to observe the Festival but we were to do so in a manner that mitigated the risk. Meaning in the face of a threat, we were obligated to take steps to keep people safe AND we were obligated to continue learning, living, praying and caring as a Jewish community.

The rabbis of the Talmud obviously had antisemitism in mind when they referred to “a time of danger.” But at the start of the pandemic, I couldn’t help but see their statement as offering guidance for how a community can and should respond at a time of crisis… regardless of the crisis.

COVID-19 turned spring of 2020 into a “time of danger.” It prevented us from doing things “the proper way.” In order to do our best to keep everyone as safe as possible, our entire congregation essentially “moved the Hanukkah light to the table.” Like our ancestors before us, despite the danger, we found ways to still do the work—and the joy—of community.

Three years later, COVID is still here and we are having to learn how to strike a balance between normal routines and times when, albeit briefly, we need to “move back to the table.” This year, however, I cannot help but look at the original context of this teaching from the Talmud. As painful as it might be to admit it, this is increasingly a “time of danger” and the degree of the challenges we face have taken many by surprise. As you know, ADL has been tracking a rapid growth in antisemitism since 2016. Last year, our community, which represents just 2.4% of the population, accounted for 64% of the religiously-based hate crimes. And while politicians and the media may finally be recognizing the seriousness of the challenges we face, we have seen it coming for some time.

In these challenging times, we, like our ancestors before us, have a dual responsibility. We must continue to remain strong against the threat of rising antisemitism, and at the same time recommit ourselves to celebrating our heritage and maintaining our traditions. Thankfully, while the times call on us to be vigilant, we are far from the point of needing to “put the menorah on the table.” You can be certain that this year the menorah in our home will be burning brightly in the window… perhaps more brightly than ever.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen