Rekindling a Jewish Connection
A menorah stands in the middle of a table where Russian residents welcome the Chanukah lights with prayer, offering thanks for the commandment “to kindle the Chanukah lights.” This is a particularly poignant scene for these immigrants, whose memories of Chanukah are mostly clothed in the darkness of the former Soviet Union where Jewish celebrations were held in secret. At JCHE, however, the candles of expression burn brightly.
The Jewish Holiday Celebration program is the product of a CJP grant aiming to build a sense of Jewish community through song, reminiscing, sharing and rejoicing among those reconnecting with their Jewish origins. Co-led by Clara Martin, a JCHE Resident Services Coordinator, and Margie Sokoll of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, the program holds six sessions that touch on the fundamental Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim, Pesach and Shavuot/Shabbat. Each session highlights the historical context of the holiday, the rituals associated with it, and its significance to the Jewish faith.
Last Tuesday marked the third assembly of the Jewish Holiday Program, where residents sang songs, spun dreidels and ate latkes in the glowing spirit of Chanukah, the festival of lights.
The programs are designed to offer Russian residents an opportunity to deepen their appreciation for Jewish holidays that they may have celebrated as children and perhaps even in a limited way as adults. It’s a type of learning and celebration that bridges the past and present, allowing residents to rebuild the Judaism that was perhaps there in practice at some point in their lives, but too dangerous to openly pursue. “The residents remember the rituals from childhood, but it has taken them this long to understand it. They had very few opportunities to experience the holidays in Russia,” says Clara Martin, a Russian immigrant herself who identifies strongly with her Jewish background. “Some understand their Jewish roots and some do not,” she explains, “but together we make one cohesive group.”
“It’s been truly inspirational and fun,” Clara adds. “Mainly, it’s celebratory. It’s a cause for celebration of things that haven’t always been celebrated.”
And a celebration indeed, as with songs like ‘Ma’oz Tsur’ and ‘O Hanukkah’ allowed residents to reminisce. Light is a particularly important theme, since so much of the Chanukah celebration centers on the vital role of light throughout Jewish history. Tenants considered the role of light in their own lives, weaving the symbol through memories of childhood candle-lighting all the way into the smoldering ashes of the tragic Haifa forest fire last week. While light holds many meanings, perhaps none is more appropriate than the rekindling of a Jewish identity for these residents. While the Chanukah candles burn lower, the embers of Jewish learning are rekindled.