Rabbi Kerry Olitzky says Jews make a mistake when they refer to Hanukka as a “minor” holiday — forgetting the major impact it can have on under-affiliated or intermarried families.
Olitzky believes there’s no better vehicle for getting people “in touch with the rhythm of Jewish life” than Hanukka, particularly families with children.
“A lot of Jewish families, especially with growing interfaith families, relate to the essential values of Hanukka,” he said. “They can reflect on the notion of bringing light into darkness.”
Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, delivered the Ellen M. Egger Memorial Lecture Nov. 30 at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, where he is a member.
In his talk and a phone conversation with NJJN, he tied the holiday to the work of the JOI, best known for creating welcoming Jewish resources for interfaith families and others who feel on the margins of Jewish life. Olitzky devoted much of his talk to dealing with what he considers the Jewish community’s greatest challenge, intermarriage, and how to include those involved in such unions in the Jewish community.
“My goal is always to find an access point for people,” said the North Brunswick resident.
At the program, Olitzky recalled his childhood in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he would become virtually the only Jew in his racially segregated high school. The American emphasis on Hanukka becomes a point of pride for Jewish children growing up in such circumstances, he said.
“When that 10-year-old boy goes to the mall and sees a big Christmas tree, he feels left out,” said Olitzky. “When that same 10-year-old sees a tiny little menora next to the Christmas tree, he doesn’t feel very important.
“But, if he sees a big menora — and it doesn’t matter who’s behind it — he thinks, ‘I’m important.’”
One of Olitzky’s 70 books, Eight Nights, Eight Lights, offers perspectives on adding meaning to the holiday.
“Each chapter reflects a night and names a light, such as ‘courage,’” explained Olitzky. “The courage the Maccabees had to have as a small family standing up to the major Assyrian army. Then it helps families think through what they can do in their community that will require them to have courage, something they’ve been silent about, so that the small flames will turn into Hanukka light.”
He said that one of ways to spread light is to give to others, a lesson that is particularly relevant on Hanukka. “One of the things Hanukka teaches us is that the real way to bring light into the world is to make other people’s lives brighter.”