Reflections of Hanukkah

Dec. 10, 2020

By ERIC VERNON

Like most holidays on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is never on time. This year, for instance, it is “early,” but even coming in the second week of December, we can still use the light. This may be especially true in the dark year of 2020, when, ironically, our vision was supposed to be perfect.

Light and flame are prominent images in Jewish scripture and texts, and the symbol of the menorah resonates throughout our collective history. Candles, of course, feature prominently in Jewish festive celebrations. We welcome Shabbat with candles every Friday night, and bid it goodbye with the braided candle of Havdalah. We bid goodbye to our loved ones with candles at shiva and yahrzeit.

The Chassidic masters taught: “You cannot dispel darkness with a stick, you must light a candle.” It’s also been aptly noted that the benefit of the candle is twofold: It brings light to the person who lit it, while helping someone nearby, without diminishing its light. A candle loses nothing even by lighting another candle.

Lighting candles at Hanukkah has a special appeal, likely vying with conducting a Passover Seder as the most popular holiday activity of the Jewish annual cycle.

The Talmud tells of competing schools of thought regarding the lighting of candles at Hanukkah. One school, seeking to mirror the diminishing light of the legendary oil cruse after a week and a day, suggested starting with eight candles and removing one each day. The other school countered that the true miracle of Hanukkah lay in adding light to the world and advocated beginning with one candle and ending with eight.

We know how this debate concluded. We are imbued with the wonderful symbolism of the lighting of successive candles on this joyous festival, and our thoughts often turn at this time to how we, in our own lives, can add light to the world.

You often hear people speak of “light at the end of the tunnel” as the optimistic metaphoric end of a long process or a difficult time they are experiencing. Sadly, we need not strain ourselves to come up with a perfect example these past few months. At these times of uncertainty or frustration, especially when we’re not sure that the light in the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train, we can be buoyed by the hopeful message of the following passage:

“Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The concept of the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice actually derives from a sermon titled, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” published in 1857 by a transcendentalist and Unitarian minister in the United States named Theodore Parker. But you will likely not be surprised to learn that the quote above is from a speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., in August 1967.

King loved the image of the bending arc of morality seeking justice. In fact, he used it in several speeches from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s as the civil rights movement in the U.S. moved through its tumultuous and, despite King’s signature approach, often violent, bloody and lethal early period. In August 1967, the movement that had witnessed the marches in Selma and Montgomery; the murders of Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers had just come through the “long, hot summer” of widespread rioting in cities across America.

And not knowing that in just a matter of mere months, his own name would be added to the list of those cut down for the cause, King could have rightly looked around and considered the slow, sometimes infinitesimal gains made for racial equality and wondered if there would ever come a time when American society would judge people, as he famously said, not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

And yet, in spite of the glacial pace of the civil rights movement, King remained optimistic, sustained in his firm belief that morality and justice would one day intersect and American society would finally experience the necessary transformative social change for true racial equality. Sadly, the events of this past summer demonstrated just how much that noble goal remains aspirational and not fully realized.

And yet, as Jews, we understand King’s optimism intuitively. That we have survived and flourished over millennia is all the more remarkable given the litany of hate, persecution and attempted annihilation we have faced throughout time, all because of who we are.

We think about this especially at Hanukkah. As discouraging as the manifestations of both historical and contemporary antisemitism may be, the candles’ light in this season braces and inspires us to resist oppression, fight for human rights for all and proudly assert our identity.

So as you load up your hanukkiyah and set flame to wick, you will of course be celebrating the stunning victory of the Maccabees for religious freedom and our right to live as Jews.

You will of course be commemorating the redemption of the Temple and the astounding miracle of the burning oil.

But more than that, as you light the bright festive candles of Hanukkah, you will be illuminating the arc of the moral universe and guiding it as it bends its way toward justice.


Eric Vernon
Eric Vernon

Eric Vernon is the former Director of Government Relations and International Affairs of Canadian Jewish Congress.

Black, Jewish Communities Join Forces to Combat Racism

Sept. 22, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Two communities with long histories of persecution are linking arms to push for a better future.

B’nai Brith Canada and the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce have signed an agreement to collaborate on efforts to end antisemitism and racism in the country.

The deal, signed in a special ceremony Sept. 16 in Toronto, commits both groups to share their knowledge and strategies for attacking their common problem.

“It is easy to get swept up in the divisiveness rhetoric that that often accompanies political discussions,” said B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn. “We are coming together today to reject divisiveness and together forge an uplifting, positive and concrete path for the future of our communities.”

Andria Barrett, president of the two-year-old Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce (CBCC), said B’nai Brith’s long history of advocating for the Jewish community will help her organization in its struggle.

“We see B’nai Brith as an ally in our quest for equality, equity and opportunity,” she said. “This is an important partnership that will amplify the efforts of both organizations.”

B’nai Brith, Barrett said, “has demonstrated time and again that [it is] skilled at advocacy.”

Canada’s Black and Jewish communities have a long history of working together. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1909 in Niagara Falls, Ont., and in the infancy of the 1960s civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr., Jewish groups marched with their Black neighbours.

“For generations Jewish Canadians and Black Canadians have stood side-by-side in our efforts to oppose discrimination and build a brighter future,” Mostyn said.

That support famously included Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with King. Another involved Hamilton Rabbi Eugene Weiner, who organized a group of local clergy to fly to Selma, Alabama, where images of white police attacking peaceful protesters ignited a wave of protest.

Despite sharing goals and methods, the relationship between the communities has always been informal. Now, the leaders said, swelling anti-Black racism in the United States and antisemitism growing around the world made a formal alliance important.

“After the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we realized we were at a turning point in our history,” said Aubrey Zidenberg, chair of the Special Advisory Committee to the League for Human Rights.

“Both the Jewish and Black communities have suffered through years of racism, injury and exclusionary policies,” he said. “Together we can collectively achieve great things in this magnificent country of ours.”

Beyond protest marches and briefs to government, both groups hope to use their shared skills to foster positive growth in the country. A special focus will be on efforts to improve the economic situation of marginalized communities.

“It is far too easy, especially in these troubling times, to complain and yell and scream and sometimes to bring things down without having answers for some very serious societal problems,” Mostyn said. “We are both looking to make a real difference across this country.”

Local Clergy Recall Historic Selma Marches

July 30, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

HAMILTON – In 1965, the world was shocked by television images of American police beating peaceful Black protesters who dared to march in Alabama for the right to be treated as equals.

In far-away Hamilton, Ont., a young rabbi watched those images and, in his heart, heard the voices of ancient sages calling for action.

Rabbi Eugene Weiner (second from right) marching in Selma. (Photo courtesy Wendy Schneider)

Heeding that call, Rabbi Eugene Weiner, then just 32, quickly organized a small group of other Hamilton clergy and flew to Selma, Alabama, where they linked arms with civil rights legends Martin Luther King Jr.; John Lewis; Rabbi Weiner’s former teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; and thousands of others to march for an end to American racism and bigotry.

The historic mission was recalled Sunday by members of Weiner’s former shul, Beth Jacob Synagogue of Hamilton. The commemoration occurred as another hero of the events, John Lewis, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 33 years, was taken through Selma one last time on his way to be buried.

As well as the ancient teachings of his faith, Rabbi Weiner was responding to a call directly from King for religious leaders of all faiths to come to Selma.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail after his return, Rabbi Weiner said he put himself at risk to advance the cause of social justice.

“I personally feel that the church and the synagogue have been very remiss in their response to deal with the outstanding social issues,” he was quoted as saying. “I agree with Dr. King that (the faith community) tends to be an echo rather than a voice and a taillight rather than a headlight.”

In addition to Rabbi Weiner, the Hamilton delegation included two Anglican priests, and a United Church and a Baptist minister. They were joined in Alabama by two Unitarian ministers and the pastor of a Hamilton church founded in 1835 by escaped slaves and slaves who had been freed.

Costs of the five from Hamilton were covered, quietly, by Jewish businessman Ken Soble, founder of Hamilton’s CHCH-TV.

Baptist minister Alan Matthews was part of the group. On Sunday his daughter-in-law, Ramona, recalled how he joined the trip on a single day’s notice because, like Rabbi Weiner, he thought the cause was right.

Matthews had just returned from a four-day trip visiting convicts at Kingston Penitentiary, but a phone call from the rabbi put him on an airplane the next day.

“They all believed that telegrams and marches in Toronto were no longer enough,” Ramona recalled. “They went to proclaim what they thought was justice.”

The Selma events were actually three marches intended to carry the call for voting rights to the Alabama capital of Montgomery. The first, on March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday because of the savage response of state police as marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River.

Rabbi Eugene Weiner, left, with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. (Photo courtesy Wendy Schneider)

It was television images of police brutally attacking peaceful protestors that ignited public indignation and increased support for the marchers.

Matthews wrote of the events years later “I never saw such hatred.”

A second march on March 9 turned back after King saw the array of police waiting for them on the other side of the bridge. The third, on March 21 – after the Hamilton delegation had returned home – got to the state capital after four days, but only with the protection of National Guard troops under federal orders.

In the face of the violence directed at marchers, King’s instructions were, that if attacked, they were fall face down and cover their heads with their hands.

“You are here to witness, not be abusive or to fight. Do not run away from the scene. You will feel and see hate – show love…do not retaliate. Peace, love will win.”

Rabbi Weiner and his fellow Hamilton clergymen arrived in Selma March 14 and on their second day, the rabbi stood in the pulpit of a local church at a memorial service for James Reeb, a Unitarian minister who had been killed after the second march.

As the rabbi intoned the sacred words of the Mourner’s Kaddish, hundreds of congregants hummed We Shall Overcome. One witness to that event recalled how, as Rabbi Weiner finished the prayer, “from nowhere there came two little Negro girls who began to sing a high piercing descant above our singing. The rabbi leaned down, picked up the four-year-old, and held her in his arms. And the tears flowed down my face. And all around him, people were crying.”

Rabbi Weiner left Beth Jacob in 1969, moving with his family to Israel where he enjoyed a distinguished academic career as professor of sociology at Haifa University. He died in 2003 of cancer at age 69.

In 1965 Hamilton Rabbi Eugene Weiner organized a small group of local clergy to fly to Selma, Alabama, to join civil rights protests over the denial of voting rights for Black citizens. (Photo courtesy Beth Jacob Synagogue)

Today, 55 years later, the causes for which those tears flowed remain, shown daily in the wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the United States and in the calls for economic justice around the world among others.

That sentiment was captured by one of Sunday’s participants. Michaele-Sue Goldblatt, who grew up at Beth Jacob. She recalled one recent protest she attended in Barrie, where the sign she carried asked plaintively “I did this in the ‘60s. Why am I still doing it?”

Lyla Miklos, a Hamilton-based activist who joined other marchers in 2015 to mark the half-century anniversary of the Selma protests, said every generation seems to have an incident that sparks anger and protests.

For her, it was images of Rodney King being brutally beaten by police officers in Los Angeles in 1991. For many today it is the image of George Floyd dying under the crushing weight of a police officer in Minneapolis earlier this year.

“Today it seems we are being bombarded by images of police brutality,” she said.

For Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli, the current occupant of the Beth Jacob pulpit, the demand for spiritual leaders to take action on injustice is also unchanged.

“We have to do what we can” he said. “We cannot remain silent when we can speak up. “We must protest what we can protest. We must use our voices and voting power and our money.”