In my hometown, almost everyone strung Christmas lights on their homes in December.
Many of these displays were lovely.
A few looked more like what my Yiddish-speaking grandmother would call
As teens, driving by one such display that irradiated the entire block, with Santa, reindeer, elves, the whole mishpachah, a Christian friend pulled over and tacked a note to their front door: "Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, but this is a bit much."
I laughed at the joke. Though Hanukkah IS called the Festival of Lights, I didn't think of it that way. I thought about Maccabees, religious persecution - other themes of Hanukkah. I didn't give the lights much thought.
The rabbis of the Talmud ignored the Maccabees and instead emphasized the miracle of the oil - the lights. In
, a 30 year old children's video I love, the lights represent Jewish learning - they are literally sparks coming off the Torah scroll.
Educators today still strive to share the lights of Jewish learning. But, beyond sounding nice, what does "light of learning" actually mean?
For the "wise child" in the Passover Haggadah, it's straightforward - to know what is commanded of us. The "light" of Jewish learning is the light of Torah.
But, what about those who do not feel commanded?
They may wonder (as the "wicked child" did) - If I don't choose to adhere to Jewish law, I no longer need to learn Torah.
In response to modernity's challenges, the idea of "identity education" took hold. Teach kids so that they will "be Jewish." Teach our kids because if we don't, there will not continue to be a Jewish people.
Teaching for continuity and identity outcomes is problematic. Teaching identity too often involves pushing affiliation to an ill-defined identity. It can feel empty - we want you to feel and act in these ways without understanding why. A lot of students end up feeling like "bad Jews" because they don't feel or do as they think they are supposed to.
Rabbi Brad Artson suggests a different orientation: "Judaism is one of the great traditions of world wisdom. We have nurtured a way of life that has caressed and strengthened a resilient people throughout our wanderings."
As Jonathan Woocher puts it, "the ultimate goal of Jewish education is to inspire and equip Jews (and others, if they so wish) to use Jewish wisdom-derived from Jewish texts, historical experience, stories, practices, and communal interaction-to live more purposeful and fulfilling lives and to help shape a better world."
Turns out, it's not about identity, it is about access to and understanding this treasure chest of wisdom, which helps us to live richer and fuller lives and enhances our impact on the world. The better we shine the light of learning, the more "identified" our students feel - because they better understand to what and with whom they are connecting. It engenders an attitude shift - from something they HAVE to do to something they GET to do. Identity is better achieved as a side effect.
This is what the light of the Hanukkah menorah symbolizes for me. The thing the Maccabees were fighting to preserve. Perhaps the miracle that we celebrate now is less about the oil and more about this miraculous light of Jewish learning. If only we use it.
It is this light that we advance and extend at Jewish LearningWorks. It's why we create access for those with special learning needs. It's what our Jewish Community Library offers to its 10,000 patrons. It's what thousands of families and teens in our engagement programs connect with. It drives the 1100 educators who hone their skills through our workshops, consultations, resources and trainings. And it is what drives our donors to support this work.
As Hanukkah approaches, we give thanks to all the educators and donors who support the light of Jewish learning.
If you feel commanded, great. If not, consider yourself invited. The light belongs to you as well.