Joshua Mikutis

This Year for Hannukah, We Must Each Be The Flame Making Our World Brighter

I finally broke down when my son was sick. It wasn’t even a real sickness but just a reaction to getting a flu shot. But the experience of him suffering in my arms cracked something open that I had been holding tightly since Oct 7th.

It was crystal clear to me at that moment the kind of world that I brought my son into – a world where had I been murdered at an Israeli music festival or taken hostage from a kibbutz near the Gaza border, old classmates from college could have found ways to ideologically justify it. It’s a world where antisemitism raises its head in new and alarming ways even as the memory of the Holocaust is relegated to textbooks. As winter has drawn near and the days become shorter, it’s hard to not feel enveloped by darkness.

I grew up in the halcyon days of “never forget.” In my mind, the world had collectively decided that Jews should be treated with dignity and respect. This childish thinking has collided particularly brutally with reality today. And a new kind of grief has overwhelmed me.

Amid grief, compounded by seasonal bleakness, comes the arrival of Hanukkah.

While Hanukkah’s historical meaning is passionately contested, its present observance is straightforward: bringing light into the world and expressing Jewish pride in the face of oppression. And it is not an abstract notion, but one supported by a profound religious idea: that the light of the candles must be displayed publicly so all can see – the increasing brightness of hope, that we are still here. Even though the menorah is a home ritual, its essence seeps into the communal sphere, perhaps this year more than in recent memory.

Such a defining moment brough me back to the outset of World War I, when the Jewish community of Jerusalem suffered from starvation and deprivation cut off and isolated from the support and connection to European Jews. The U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, Sr, a staunch champion of Jews worldwide, knew that only a significant infusion of cash could save the beleaguered community. So, he wrote to his friend Jacob Schiff, a prominent Jewish leader and philanthropist, to ask for help. “Will you undertake matter?” his telegram ended.

And American Jews of all stripes, in some cases even ideological enemies, responded. They sat around the same table because they knew that the only way out of this was together. They formed my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), to respond to this need and began a 100+ year legacy of arevut, mutual Jewish care, and tikkun olam, repair of the broken world.

There is a lesson in what those formative Jewish leaders did by bringing together all segments of the Jewish world to solve the crisis of 1914. We must continue to summon this spirit of unity and broadness, which has become a defining moment of our communal landscape since Oct 7. Individual acts, like the private lighting of menorahs, come together to form a force larger than its parts: an illuminated world. And there is much work to be done to brighten dark spaces.

The needs, after all, are overwhelming. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are facing trauma and displacement, economic frailty, unemployment, and increasing reliance on social support. These emergency needs are already morphing into long-term challenges that must be solved as we look to rebuild a stronger Israel.

Jewish communities worldwide are grappling with rising antisemitism and fears for personal and communal safety. Young Jews, like those I work with in my role at JDC, are managing feelings of shock and betrayal, helplessness and doubt. They all need support today and as they navigate a future where this old hatred has been given new fuel.

And for Jews in Ukraine – still braving a nearly two-year conflict –  another punishing winter sets in. Their needs, from the everyday basics to heating, jobs and relief from widespread stress and fear, mount by the day as infrastructure is not fully operational and susceptible to further destruction leaving many in the dark for days on end.

A long haul faces us and that daunting prospect can feel exhausting and debilitating, especially as the prospects for a quick resolution to the conflict or the return of all the hostages seems far off. Just as one of the consequences of “climate grief” is to despair for the future, I think the grief of this moment can also cause us to back away and retreat from the world.

And yet, we must harness all our energy to push in the opposite direction: to be proudly and fervently in the world, and together. Judaism lives in the plural. Just as God found that it was not good for Adam to be alone in the Garden of Eden, we must cast out loneliness and strive to be with others in the world.

Whether that is through prayer and fasting, study or volunteering, philanthropy or advocacy, or gatherings like those in Washington DC or ongoing vigils for those held captive, we must stand up and remind ourselves, and the world, of our resilience and fortitude. We can transform ourselves into embodied menorahs and each become a shamash, the candle used to spark each additional candle.

We do this knowing there is only so much we can control or do. But we can act—and increase the light just as countless Jews across time and space have done before us.

As we proudly place menorahs in our windowsills this year, we must hold each other, whether in despair or joy, and say, together, yes – we will undertake this matter, today and for generations to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, a graduate of HUC-JIR, is JDC Entwine’s Jewish Learning Designer.