Benjamin Altshuler (he/him), is the Rabbi of Mount Sinai Congregation in Wausau, WI and an alumnus of the Avodah Jewish Service Corps (Chicago, 2013-2014). He spent the year serving at Friedman Place, a supportive living facility for adults who are blind. He has served as Network Weaver and Alumni Justice Ambassador.
With the approaching celebration of Chanukah, I think back fondly on our celebrations of the Festival of Lights in the Avodah bayit (house) and ponder the social justice lessons that inform this season. Now, as the rabbi of Mount Sinai Congregation in Wausau, WI, I seek to bridge the mythology of our tradition with the values of our modern day.
On one hand, a story of comeuppance, overturning hegemony, and rededicating sacred space is a highlight for social justice warriors. Chanukah reflects efforts to protect religious liberties, stand up to bullies, and celebrate unexpected victories by enjoying fried treats. But a closer look at the Maccabees, their guerilla warfare tactics, and the harsh treatment of other Judeans who opposed their zealotry makes me wonder how much to identify with the heroes of our narrative.
These days, Chanukah has become a celebration of identity, especially when juxtaposed with the traditions of other faith communities in the winter months. During my Service Corps year, we joined with several faith-based service corps for an interfaith holiday party. We sang songs, played games, and ate foods featured by the diverse traditions we represented. Our idyllic fête was a microcosm of unity and togetherness – one that does not reflect the realities of most peoples’ experiences during the holidays.
The “December Dilemma” perennially poses the challenge of how to celebrate or offer holiday greetings without competing over grandest or gaudiest display. Gifts are great, and I love getting mail, but consumerism is not part of our Chanukah narrative. Why, Chanukah is not even a major holiday in our Jewish calendar. Therefore, let us focus on the small moments of togetherness and light.
I will never forget gathering in the dining room of our drafty Chicago apartment with my Avodah housemates. We turned off the lights – it was already plenty dark outside with the early winter sunset and the lake-effect snow softening the streetlight through the weatherized windows. Next, we lit all the chanukiyot in the house and joined in the blessings together, our voices a joyful discord, the candlelight reflecting in our eyes. We didn’t have many gifts to exchange, but what we had was shared. I remember thinking about the darkness in the world – literal in the dusk hour, but also metaphorical, as the poverty and systemic obstacles we helped clients approach in our fellowship assignments every day. Like the candles before us, my housemates and I could push back against the darkness in small ways, bringing hope and illumination to others.