Hag orot sameakh – happy Festival of Lights!
There are some who assume that Hannukah is “the Jewish Christmas”. But it is not.
True, both Christmas and Hannukah share common pre-Christian and pre-Jewish roots which respond to the darkness of the shortest days of the year by celebrating the blessing of light. But our interpretation of those lights carries its own distinct narrative, in the story of a small band of Jewish fighters (whom we know as the Maccabees) who led the struggle for the right to be religiously different from the dominant society – Greek Hellenism – which threatened to homogenize us Jews out of existence.
The name Hanukkah, “dedication”, refers to the high point of the ancient story: the Maccabees liberate the Temple from Greek occupation, cleanse it of Greek ritual and Greek gods, and rededicate it to its Jewish purpose. Just as the light of a star travels many years before reaching us, we are still experiencing the illumination of the light our ancestors kindled on that day.
The real illumination of Hannukah is not reflected from shiny dreydles, bright gelt, gifts, latkes and the children’s story about the miracle of the oil. The real story of the holiday is that of dedication to our tradition.Consider that the Hebrew word for education, hinukh, shares the same root meaning as hanukkah, dedication. For Jews, to educate our children is to dedicate them to the specific light shed for them through the Jewish knowledge and values that we ourselves have worked to preserve and perpetuate through our own lives.
Every year during our congregational Hanukkah celebration, we celebrate Hanukkat haYeladim, the Dedication of the Children. Each year, every student (new to our Nashira Education Project, between the grades of kindergarten and fifth grade) will receive a special blessing and a miniature Torah scroll in a special ceremony that will take place at Hanukkah, in the moments between our celebration of Havdalah and the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah lights.
Hanukkah is still be the fun, child-centered holiday we’ve created in the American Jewish community. We still play dreydel games and eat latkes, sing songs and even practice the adopted custom of exchanging gifts.
But in the spirit of the holy day period, we must also seek to illuminate a deeper level of meaning to one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish year, one which reaches back through history and down to the very essence of what it means to be Jewish. It is to recognize the light of the past which still illuminates; to guard it, feed it, and illuminate our own path with it, ready to see whatever must be seen, and respond with our part in the chain of our tradition when it comes to us to carry it on.
In this very special way, our entire congregational family celebrates the light that was kindled 2500 years ago when we officially dedicate our students to the lifetime of fascinating and meaningful learning that we benefit from ourselves, and that we hope will also be theirs.
 Students engaged in Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation experience their own sense of dedication to Jewish learning through their Bat/Bar Mitzvah ceremony.