December celebrations that have symbols of light associated with them (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and others) reflect the need for brightness to counter the increase in daily hours of darkness as the winter begins. These observances bear other meanings as well, with light as the foundation of their message.
During the celebration of Hanukkah, which commemorates a victory for religious freedom won by Jews in Judea in 165 BC, I asked my congregants at Temple Beth-El to share one word about what the festival meant to them this year.
Their responses encompassed a wide range of aspects of the holiday and its relation to our lives today. The “one-word” descriptions I received included:
• Gratitude and pride.
• Triumph and hope.
• Family and Continuity.
• Endurance and perseverance.
• Remembrance and tradition.
• Freedom and survival.
• Empowerment and enlightenment.
• Dedication and responsibility.
• Commitment and focus.
Some of these values naturally flowed from a story about a people seeking to hold on to their house of worship, their faith, and their right to be different in the face of a ruler who sought to change them and insist that they be like “everyone else.”
Other principles expressed how we can find ways, today, to be heroic on our own terms and to offer our help to people in need whose circumstances have led them to a place where hope is ours to give them.
That is how I view the annual effort of my congregation to serve breakfast at Camp Hope on Christmas morning. Many Temples and synagogues around the country try to find ways to serve their communities on a day when regular volunteers at hospitals and helping programs may be at home celebrating the holiday that they observe with family or friends.
In 2012, members of Temple Beth-El sought to identify a way in which we could make a small impact on people who needed some warmth and cheer on a holiday known for those qualities.
We called on congregants to provide donations of food, funds, time and energy so that we would be able to serve a hot breakfast at Camp Hope.
As it has turned out over the six years of this effort, we have not only served a meal, but we also have had a chance to speak with the people who came. We have listened to their stories, and we have tried to provide them with a sense that there are people who care about them.
In recent years, our Religious School children have created “goodie bags” that residents could take with them. This year, they also made greeting cards that, they hoped, would lift the spirits of the recipients. Several of our students were present to directly deliver these gifts of their hands and hearts.
I know that there are other organizations and congregations engaging in this type of activity in order to dispel darkness with light, to replace hopelessness with a spark of hope, and to offer warmth to counter the chill in the air.
These acts bring a brightness that can be sensed inside the one who gives and the one who receives. They reflect every value that my congregants cited in relation to Hanukkah, because it is, through our giving and our dedication, that more people will be able to live well and thrive every day. May that be a goal for which we continue to strive individually and as a community.