Give Us Some Space

The story is as old as time. Jews were made to feel unwelcome in a place that they consider home. Jews were apprehensive about openly worshiping as Jews in the traditional manner. Jews were being singled out solely because they were Jews.

No, I am not talking about the land of Judea in the year 165 BCE. I’m talking about the state of Montana in the year 2016. It’s a different time and a different place, but it’s a familiar experience.

This time, it is Congregation B’nai Shalom of Whitefish, Montana, being harassed by devotees of the National Policy Institute and readers of the Daily Stormer. The former is a white nationalist group and the latter is a neo-Nazi news website. Both have called upon their followers to harass and cyber-bully the Jewish residents of Whitefish.

Just yesterday, I told this story to our JLC’s third- through seventh-graders during our Hanukkah celebration. They immediately saw the parallel to the ancient story of our Judean ancestors and the desecration of the Temple. I then invited them to make holiday cards to send to the Jewish community of Whitefish.

Now, some of them simply wrote, “Happy Hanukkah” and drew pictures of dreidels and menorahs, which was lovely. Others, though, wrote powerful messages: “Be like the Maccabees and fight back!” “Stay strong!” “Don’t give in to the bullies!” “Don’t let mean people get you down!” And more.

They shed some light where previously there was only darkness. It was with great pleasure that I took those cards to the post office this morning and sent them on their way.

It’s easy to fall into the routine of Hanukkah – menorahs, dreidels, latkes, presents, sufganiyot, etc. – without giving the message of Hanukkah a lot of thought. It’s even easier to think to ourselves that Hanukkah is a minor holiday – not in the same category as Yom Kippur or Passover. However, when we do that, we risk forgetting how important the lesson Hanukkah is – even in the year 2016 (almost 2017!).

We have the right to create sacred space for our community. We have a right to congregate safely in that space and worship as we wish. And if that space is violated or desecrated or threatened in any way, we must not take it lying down. We must fight to protect our rights.

These are not only our rights, but they are the rights of any and all other religious groups as well. As a religious minority who has experienced – and continues to experience – challenges to these rights, we ought to be part of any effort to make sure that these rights extend to all religious groups.

Jodi and the kids join me in wishing you a Happy Hanukkah.



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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