- - Thursday, December 7, 2023

What do you think of when you think of Hanukkah? Maybe children receiving small gifts for each of the eight nights of the holiday. Or eating latkes and jelly doughnuts. Or lighting the menorah.

The menorah, of course, is the eight-branched candelabrum that we light during Hanukkah to symbolize one of the great miracles of the holiday: the eternal flame in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that stayed lit for eight days, despite there being only enough oil to keep it burning for one. It is perhaps the most familiar symbol of the holiday — and one that has recently taken on an even richer and more relevant meaning for me.

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Last week, I took a trip to southern Israel to survey the damage from Hamas’ savage attack of Oct. 7, and to assess the humanitarian needs that can be filled by my organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. I found myself in a kibbutz called Be’eri, one of the places that was devastated by the terrorists — more than 10% of the population was either killed or kidnapped.

When I arrived, I saw a man with tears in his eyes going through the ruins of a house. As I kneeled next to him, I asked him to share his story with me.

“This is the house of my in-laws, my wife’s parents,” he said. “They had their entire family over for Shabbat, their kids and grandkids. My father-in-law was killed, and eight others were kidnapped and taken to Gaza.”

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He told me that although one member of his family is still in captivity, the rest were released during the recent ceasefire. 

“My mother-in-law was released from Gaza just a few days ago, and she begged me to try and salvage any personal belongings from her home. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it had been burned to the ground, so I’m going through the ashes, trying to salvage even just one item to bring back to her,” he said.

I was speechless thinking about the pain this man — and so many others like him — was experiencing. I put my hand on his back, and wished him luck. 

When I was leaving an hour later, I saw him standing in the ashes, holding something that looked like a burned menorah. I had to look twice to make sure I was seeing correctly. Indeed, this man, after hours of going through the ashes, found two menorahs in the wreckage to return to his family.

A miracle.

To me, his story symbolizes everything about the Jewish people, and a lot about Hanukkah. Hanukkah commemorates a time when the enemies of the Jewish people tried to destroy us, but God protected us and, despite all odds, miraculously saved us. Antisemitism is not new. Throughout history, many have tried to destroy the Jewish people. But, ultimately, the Jewish people live.

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As I looked at the burnt menorah in Be’eri, I couldn’t help but think about the iconic photo from Germany during World War II that shows a menorah in a windowsill, directly across the street from a building where Nazi flags flew. Even then — maybe especially then — we knew that we must ensure that the light outshines the darkness. 

This year, Hanukkah once again comes at a time of war for Israel. The terrible events of Oct. 7 have been called “Israel’s 9/11,” and given the magnitude of the attacks — which, per capita, would equate to 50,000 civilians being killed on 9/11. It’s a fair comparison.

What’s incredible is that this tragedy has not made the people of Israel feel like victims or disempowered the nation. In fact, the opposite is true! It has mobilized the greatest grassroots philanthropic efforts of our generation. 

We Israelis have put aside our differences and rallied together in unity — to feed our soldiers heading off to the front lines, to take care of the over 250,000 people suddenly turned into refugees, and to bring healing and joy to the injured. I recently saw a video of an Israel Defense Forces tank being used for a gender reveal party for a soldier who is an expectant father. I have witnessed weddings on the battlefield, men video chatting to witness the birth of their children, and reserve soldiers joining their son’s bar mitzvah by phone.

Life must go on. We refuse to have our national identity be one of the victims. Yes, it was — and continues to be — incredibly hard. Yes, we are all in mourning for people we knew and loved who were killed. But we have transformed that hardship and pain into tangible, unified actions of doing good — into a source of light in the darkness.

When faced with your very existence being called into question, continuing to celebrate life’s special moments and milestones is the way to make that light shine even brighter.

And that’s exactly what Hanukkah represents. When it looks like there is no hope left, you do what you can to be a light, despite the circumstances. You keep moving forward, committed to doing what is right. And when you do, God comes through to strengthen your efforts.

After the atrocities of Oct. 7, Israel’s path was clear. We must fight for our lives, and our very existence. We simply have no choice. Yes, it is terrifying. Yes, it is filled with unbelievable difficulties. Yes, sadly, the world is still infatuated with dead Jews, and with defending terrorists.

But after hundreds of my people were kidnapped, after more than 1,200 were killed, and with more dying every day, we must stop our enemy. Despite our diverse political views, the people of Israel are unified in believing that our cause is just, and that God will bless us with success. We have no option but to succeed — because we have nowhere else to go.

Now is the time for the entire world to remember the lessons of Hanukkah, and the lessons of that man in Be’eri. As people who value freedom, life and faith, we are sometimes called to fight and to protect these cherished values, and believe that, ultimately, justice prevails. Freedom reigns. Light outshines the darkness.

The 10 million people of Israel are fighting a war for national and spiritual survival against hundreds of millions of enemies — from Iran, to Yemen, to Gaza, to Lebanon and more. It is the same as the story of David fighting Goliath. It’s the same as the story of the Maccabees fighting the Greeks in the time of Hanukkah. And just as God blessed their actions then, our prayer is that he will bless ours now.

We read in the Psalms, “you turned my wailing into dancing … Lord my God, I will praise you forever” (Psalm 30:11-12). Hanukkah does exactly that — turns the darkness into light, turns the winter into comfort, turns our wailing into dancing.

Even in a time of war.

Yael Exckstein is president and CEO of The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and oversees all programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the organization. With over a decade of nonprofit experience in multiple roles, Yael has the rare distinction of being a woman leading one of the world’s largest religious charitable organizations. In 2021, she launched her podcast, “Nourish Your Biblical Roots,” in which she shares spiritual insights and lessons from the Torah, and invites leading Christian and Jewish thought leaders to discuss Jewish-Christian relations and Israel’s significance on the world stage. She is the 2023 recipient of the Jerusalem Post’s Humanitarian Award, and in 2020, 2021 and 2023, was named to the publication’s list of 50 Most Influential Jews. Born outside of Chicago, Yael is based in Israel with her husband and their four children.

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