Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. As Executive Director of Jewish Student Union (JSU), I am privileged to work in Atlanta area public high schools with more than 4,000 Jewish students. Many of these students have little or no connection to our tradition and Hanukkah provides a unique teaching moment for them. The holiday commemorates two miracles — a Jewish military victory and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. It is also an assertion of Jewish pride. Coming as it does, in the thick of the Christmas holiday season, Hanukkah has a message that deeply resonates with our Jewish high school youth, and it’s one they need to hear — it’s that we remained steadfast in our beliefs in the face of great adversity. Yes, we are different and that difference is something that makes us proud.
At Hanukkah, we teach that every Jewish person is like the shamash (the center candle that lights the others on the menorah) because deep inside everyone has a personal fire that they can share to help others ignite their faith. At JSU club meetings we bring Judaism to life with hands-on Jewish programs. On Hanukkah we make sizzling latkes. We participate in service learning projects to decorate dreidels and give them as gifts to Holocaust survivors through JF&CS. Each student is provided with a menorah to decorate, which they bring home to share with friends and family. I’ve heard kids say that when they bring their menorahs home they are the ones leading the celebrations and showing their parents how to light the menorah.
JSU’s strong presence in public schools has a ripple effect, spreading an understanding and appreciation of Judaism throughout the school and community. In JSU we focus on helping every student find their personal connection to Judaism. This is different for every kid. For many, I’m the first rabbi they’ve ever met, and the first person to introduce them to Judaism. For others, I’m a bridge back to Jewish observances and values they haven’t experienced since childhood or their bar and bat mitzvah. Many alumni have gone on to become leaders of Hillels and Jewish fraternities on college campuses. Several of our teens now work as educators in Hebrew schools, and many serve as board members at all of our local Jewish youth programs. Ryan Kaplan, the Birthright Israel Associate at Federation is one of our alumni!
JSU is all about empowering teens to connect with their tradition and become champions of Judaism in their schools. We give them the inner strength during the teen years, when it’s all about “fitting in”, to find the courage to say “I’m proud to be Jewish.” That’s a Hanukkah miracle too.