At the centre of Chanukkah lies a ‘Tree of Life’, represented by the nine branched M’norah or Chanukkiyyah. That Tree of Life reminds us of our ancestors, who challenged Assyrian Greek domination in 164BCE to re-establish independent Jewish life. But the celebration of Chanukkah is about much more than commemoration of the past; it reminds us that the task of creating and sustaining Jewish life now – in the present, and for the future – lies in our hands.
This year, as we light the Chanukkiyyah, day by day, I would like us to think of it as the Tree of Life of our congregation, with each branch, and each flame, representing a key element that is essential to ensuring that our congregation flourishes:
- Good lay and rabbinic leadership. We are fortunate that the people who take responsibility for ensuring that the wheels of congregational life keep turning, not only give unstintingly of their time and energies, they are also motivated by the best interests of the congregation. A rabbi is essentially a teacher. A good teacher imparts knowledge and inspires others to learn and grow, and is also themselves, a good learner – committed to listening to and understanding the needs of their congregation.
- Good communication and consultation. Both the lay leaders and the rabbi are essentially the servants of the congregation. Representing the congregation effectively, involves those in positions of leadership ensuring that there are clear channels in place for communication and consultation.
- Community development. A static congregation has ceased to live. A living congregation means a congregation in which everyone is enabled to be involved, and the skills and creativity of individuals is harnessed to respond to changing needs.
- Active participation of members and friends. However skilled the leaders may be, congregational life depends on members and friends responding positively to opportunities to become actively involved, and volunteering their time and energies.
- Inclusion. Enabling everyone to be involved involves a commitment to including everyone in the life of the congregation – not only in theory, but also, in practice: individuals of all ages; single people; couples and families; lesbian and gay individuals, couples and families; those who are transgender; people living with disabilities; single-parent households; families where only one parent is Jewish; individuals who themselves have only one Jewish parent – whether their mother or their father, individuals; who choose to become Jewish; secular, cultural and religious Jews.
- 6. Caring for each other. Effective inclusion depends on the practice of care and compassion. Caring for others is not just one of the roles of the Rabbi, or the task of a dedicated group of volunteers. Keeping in touch with those who are elderly and visiting the sick is a responsibility that we all share. It is also an integral feature of an inclusive community, ensuring that those who are unable to be actively present are not forgotten and continue to feel part of the congregation.
- Shared values. A vibrant community is one where the core values – in our case, of inclusion, equality, justice, compassion, tolerance, diversity and openness – are shared by all, binding everyone together in a sense of shared purpose, while giving each individual the sense of their unique value.
- Connection with others. A vibrant congregation does not exist in isolation. The synagogue magazine is called OPEN DOOR for two reasons: because we are open to those who wish to cross the threshold, and because we ourselves venture out all the time to connect with others: with the wider community of Jews in Brighton & Hove, and Sussex in general; with other communities in Brighton and Hove – of all types: religious, ethnic, LGBT, and so on; with the wider community of Liberal Judaism in this country; with other communities and projects that share our values in Britain, Israel and the wider world.
- Ru’ach – ‘Spirit’. We light eight candles or flames over the eight days of Chanukkah – or rather one, then two, then three, and so on. But there is a ninth – the shammash, or, ‘servant’ candle that occupies the ninth branch of the Chanukkiyyah. Just as without the shammash, none of the other eight wicks will burn, so there is another element, without which none of the eight branches of congregational life I’ve mentioned can flourish: Rua’ch, meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘wind’. Ru’ach denotes an energy that is not to be conflated with or confined to ‘spirituality’; a life force. Like the wind in the trees, our Ru’ach – both individual and collective – animates the branches of the tree that is our congregation and makes it come alive. May our celebration of Chanukkah re-kindle the Ru’ach within each one of us.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
(Adapted from article in OPEN DOOR, December 2007)