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The light of Hanukkah in American democracy

It has been disorienting to adjust to the reality that being Jewish in the US increasingly feels dangerous
"Hanukkah menorah" by skpy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
"Hanukkah menorah" by skpy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Hanukkah celebrates light during the short, dark days of December. It is a happy holiday of dreidels, latkes and chocolate, an eight day period of sentimental singing. One of our family’s favorites is Peter, Paul and Mary’s Don’t Let the Light Go Out. Children traditionally receive presents for each of the eight days.

Like all Jewish holidays, Hanukkah’s meaning is multi-layered. The holiday celebrates miracles – a miracle of light and the miracle of religious freedom; a right I have had the privilege of taking for granted throughout my life.

While antisemitism has always existed, I have never felt personally in danger. Certainly not here in Essex County, New Jersey, where there are upwards of seventeen synagogues. My family and I live in what is considered part of the New York metropolitan tri-state area with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. I have been blessed to live in this haven of Jewish life, culture and religious vibrancy my entire life.

It has been disorienting to adjust to the reality that being Jewish in America increasingly feels dangerous. The growing divisions in our country have created a spiritual and political battle between the light of Democracy and the darkness of authoritarianism. These battles have been magnified and amplified in social media, where the guardrails of appropriate conduct have fallen away, giving rise to hate speech and the incidents that often follow.

Last year in West Orange, the town where I live, a synagogue B’nai Shalom had three swastikas desecrate its sidewalks. In Montclair, the next town over, there were recent antisemitic incidents in a playground, a train station and a public school. In early November, the FBI issued a warning of a credible threat to synagogues in New Jersey which now have armed security guards. We are encouraged to take classes in how to handle an attack.

I felt immense dread, leading up to this year’s midterm elections. Conventional wisdom predicted a massive victory for the opposition party which is typically the case during the first term of a new Presidency. This would have meant the appointment of people who challenge the validity of our elections and have other authoritarian beliefs and impulses. Only a surprising turn of events in voting patterns could prevent what had traditionally been a predictable midterm outcome.

I always love when the Democrats win, but this was different. It was said often and it was true: democracy really was on the ballot. The outcome was a genuine miracle. It was an intervention by enough Americans collectively rejecting the darkness of authoritarianism.

Democracy is a way of mediating our differences through elections, in the courts, through peaceful protests and in the media.  Democracy’s values of tolerance, respect for differences and progress toward a more perfect union establish the guardrails of the free speech we enjoy, along with norms based on the restraint established by these values.

Developing alliances with people of different backgrounds, where we can fight for what we love, with love, is what brings safety.  Democracy is a system of mutuality and community – if something is taken away from someone else, it can be taken away from me.  If another group is in danger, I’m in danger. If bigotry is allowed and endorsed by our government, no one is safe.

Two years ago a communal menorah was vandalized in Montclair. Following the incident, people from all walks of life came out to show their solidarity with the Jewish community. The clergy represented every branch of Judaism as well as church leaders and many residents of the town not particularly affiliated with any religion or institution.

It was raining and freezing and hard to find parking. Yet the corner of Chambers and Bloomfield Avenue was packed. I stood on a street corner huddled under an umbrella with my husband, trying to keep warm. I began a conversation with two men standing next to me. I introduced myself and asked what had them come. They said, “We want to be in solidarity with the Jewish people.” The diversity of the town and the willingness of people to stand together against antisemitism and bigotry turned an ugly incident into a joyous outpouring of our oneness.

Over the past six years our government instituted the immensely cruel policy of separating families at our border. There was a call for banning Muslims from coming into the country. The LGBTQ community is increasingly under attack. This has been at the instigation, endorsement, silence and complicity of a major political party, leading up to an assault on our nation’s capital.

Among the very happy events in this period of light and dark was Senator Raphael Warnock’s acceptance speech following his very narrow victory over Herschel Walker. In his stirring remarks he said. “Democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea – that each of us has within us a spark of the divine.”  He also said, “And Georgia once again – as you did in 2021 when you sent an African-American man and a Jewish man to the Senate in one-fell swoop, you are sending a clear message to the country about the kind of world we want for our children.”

Democracy is a blessing, strengthening our values and reflecting the light we celebrate on Hanukkah and every Friday night on Shabbat. The light is in our multi-cultural democracy where people come out in support when a Menorah is vandalized and go to vote when democracy is on the ballot.

About the Author
Audrey Levitin is a Senior Consultant at CauseWired, a firm working with human rights and civil liberties organizations. For 15 years she was the Director of Development at the Innocence Project. She served as Co-Chair of US/Israel Women to Women, now a project of the National Council of Jewish Women. She is an essayist and her work has been seen in the Star Ledger, The Forward, MetroWest Jewish Week, and Cape Cod Life. She and her husband, photographer Nick Levitin live in West Orange, New Jersey.
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