Courage and Jewish Identity: A Hanukkah Appreciation for Educators

When it seems we are living in increasingly dark days - literally with shorter days, and metaphorically with rising anti-Semitism and a polarized society - the festival of light looms on the horizon. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said, "As Hanukkah teaches, the proper response is not to curse the darkness but to light a candle." 

"As educators, we kindle one small light at a time. We know that the light will not kindle itself - we must provide the spark. It takes all our diligence, all our care, all our wisdom, all our love. But this is a sacred light. If we keep rekindling it, year after year, it will endure. It will prevail against the darkness, and grow, and sustain us all." So writes Bonnie K. Stevens in Teach Them Diligently: A Midrash on the Jewish Educator’s Year.

Here is an excerpt from Stevens' midrash for educators about Hanukkah. Read it. Share it with your teachers and discuss, using the questions below as a guide. And most important, take strength from your courage to teach, knowing that you are lighting the way for the next generation.

"More than 2,000 years separate our world from the world of the Maccabees. In many ways, these two worlds have little in common. The Jews of that time lived under a brutal tyranny, forbidden on pain of death to practice their religion. We live in a republic, our religious freedom guaranteed by our country's most fundamental laws, our way of life protected by a society that prizes tolerance and individuality as essential virtues. Even so, we may sometimes feel a kinship with the Jews of Judah Maccabee's time. 

Like them, we live in a culture that makes abandoning Judaism much easier than remaining faithful. Our students feel these pressures as much as we do - pressures exerted by other religions, by pervasive materialism, and by a popular culture that too often celebrates irreverence, selfishness, and vulgarity. As Jewish teachers, we are charged with the task of helping our students find the courage to resist all such presures and helping them build strong Jewish identities that can withstand temptations.

Remember that there are two Hanukkah miracles: One is the miracle of resistance; the other is the miracle of rededication. If the Maccabees had defeated Antiochus and rested content, Judaism might have been lost. But they also returned to the Temple, restored is order and splendor, and relit the eternal light. It took both miracles to ensure Judaism's survival. When we help our students build strong Jewish identities, teaching them to stand firm against the negative forces around them is only half the battle. We must also help them build a positive loyalty to Judaism, by helping them understand and feel the worth and beauty of their Jewish heritage. Only then will they know why the battle matters."

Help your teachers see their work as an opportunity for learning, joy, and spiritual growth. This lovely slim hardcover explores the intriguing parallels between the Jewish holidays and the educator's year, helping educators understand how the school year can be framed and shaped by the Jewish holidays. Try these questions at your next staff meeting or professional development session:

1. Think back to your own childhood and adolescence. If you grew up as a Jew, what influences strengthened your sense of Jewish identity? If you're a Jew by choice, what influences drew you to Judaism and helped you develop a sense of Jewish identity?

2. What can we do strengthen our students' sense of being part of the Jewish people - within our individual classrooms, in the school as a whole, in synagogue, or in our town? How can we help our students develop ties to Jews in other parts of the country and around the world? Share activities and approaches you've tried in your classroom. Generate new ideas about how to cooperate to build students' sense of Jewish community.

3. In what ways do you try to set a positive example of Jewish adulthood - in what you say, what you do, in other ways? 


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