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Areyah Kaltmann

Hamas woke us up, but the light of Chanukah will keep us going

Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, dresssed as Judah the Maccabee, lights the Menorah at Chabad of Columbus's public Chanukah Celebration 2023 | Photo Credit : Chabad of Columbus

Today concludes the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the Jewish people’s miraculous victory over the ancient Syrian-Greeks. Jews emerging stronger and more united after defeating a nation bent on their destruction is a persistent theme throughout Jewish history. Unfortunately, many people believe that antisemitism is the only or primary uniting force for Jews. There is even a quote in the Talmud which states that Haman’s evil decree was more effective at bringing the Jewish people back to observance than the 48 prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people. (Megillah 14a)

The two months since Hamas’s October 7 attack have been some of the hardest times in memory. The horrific massacres that killed more Jews in a single day since the Holocaust; the millions of demonstrators chanting “long live the Intifada” in cities around the globe; and the hotbeds of intolerance that American universities have become all hearken back to eras where Jews rightly feared for their survival.

Hamas’ attack did indeed spark a resurgence of Jewish pride and affiliation, causing Jews to come together in ways I have not seen before in my over three decades as a Chabad rabbi. This Chanukah, people who never lit a menorah before reached out asking us to teach them how. Those who never felt close to the community began showing up and being proud of their heritage. People began observing practices like lighting Shabbat candles, wrapping Tefillin and keeping Kosher as a way to double down on their Jewish pride and observance.

I recently heard a story about a non-Jewish Australian actor named Nathan Buzolic. With over 4 million followers on Instagram, he’s a mega star back in his (and my) home country. After Oct. 7, he stood up and made social media posts openly declaring his solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people. He shared: “I love the Jewish people. We as Christians need to stand with these people who have faced so much.”

Nathan shared some advice for how Jewish people can stand strong in the months and years ahead. He said, “It’s a tragic reality that it was Hamas that brought the Jewish people together. I’m glad that this nation is coming together, because for the last eight months, you’ve been divided over judicial reforms and politics and left versus right, and it was Hamas that brought you together. And so if I was talking to the Jewish people now, listening and watching this, I would say, don’t let it be Hamas that keeps you together.”

But it shouldn’t take Hamas, Antiochus, Hitler or Haman to get Jews to be proud and come together. My teacher, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, taught that Judaism at its core is about spreading light, not overcoming darkness. This means that our actions are motivated by a desire to increase goodness, kindness and holiness in the world for their own sake, and not because we are trying to overcome or outdo the evil in the world.

This is the message of Chanukah, known as the Festival of Lights. We light the menorah to send the message loud and clear: Light is real and Darkness and evil are not real. Darkness is the absence of light and light pushes away darkness because it is our true reality.

Every time we do a Mitzvah, it’s like lighting a candle in the world. Every time we feel pride and joy in our Jewishness, we spread light. The bottom line is that with Judaism, we’re Jewish not out of a response to antisemitism. We are Jewish because Judaism has something good, positive and real to offer us.

We’re not Jewish because our enemies remind us that we’re different. We don’t need a yellow star to remind us that we need to be Jewish. We’re Jewish because of light, not because we want to get rid of darkness. We’re Jewish because it’s the best way to live a life. We’re Jewish because of joy. We’re Jewish because of celebration.

This year, on the first night of Chanukah, Chabad of Columbus created history by having “Judah the Maccabee” parachute out of an airplane to light the menorah. We did this because we want kids to be excited about being Jewish and not ashamed. The Rebbe also taught that when a Jew does something Jewish, like putting on Tefillin or lighting Shabbat candles, they are living their most authentic lives.

This year, regardless of how much you normally do, take a moment to add a little more. If you celebrate Shabbat, consider inviting a friend to have dinner with you. Consider reaching out to a friend you’ve been out of contact with for a while and paying them a visit. Every step counts when it comes to increasing light and increasing our Jewish observance. It’s not an all or nothing deal.

Each of us has a role to play in the grand Jewish narrative. While antisemitism can provide a temporary spark that wakes the Jewish people up, it is ultimately the joy of being Jewish and doing Jewish things which energizes us and keeps us going. A spark will light a fire, but a love and joy for being Jewish are the logs that will ensure that the light and fire of Judaism burns brightly for generations to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann is the Director of Chabad Columbus at the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center. For over three decades, Rabbi Kaltmann and his wife Esther have put their heart and soul into serving the Columbus Jewish community. In addition to directing Chabad Columbus, the Rabbi and his family also operate LifeTown Columbus — which teaches essential life skills to more than 2,100 Ohio students with special needs in a 5,000-square-foot miniature city, Kitchen of Life — which fosters social-emotional skills for young people through culinary arts, Friendship Circle Columbus, the Jewish Business Network, and dozens of other programs. Areyah and Esther have adult children who serve Chabad of Downtown Columbus, oversee Chabad’s many programs and enthusiastically serve people throughout the state.
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