Five years ago, exactly – to the day – on 12th December 2015, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue marked one of the most momentous milestones since its foundation as a congregation 80 years earlier in 1935. And like today, it was also Shabbat Chanukkah.
I will never forget the look on people’s faces as they walked into the new building for the first time. The gasps and the smiles. The outside didn’t look very different – the same front wall, the same front door – except that in place of the planted area, an accessibility slope, and two parking places for accessibility scooters. But once inside it was a very different story. The bright foyer and the large wooden glass doors, a revelation. And then, through the double glass doors of the Sanctuary, the beautiful, huge rainbow Ark on the opposite wall, beckoning.
I’m not going to describe now all the features of the new shul that we occupied for the first time on that momentous Shabbat Chanukkah. If we were in normal times, I wouldn’t need to describe them, because we would be there, enjoying our fifth anniversary in our congregational home. But I will remind you of what we did that day.
As usual on Shabbat Chanukkah, we enjoyed a whole day of activities, beginning with the service, made more special because one of our members, Leslie Burns, was celebrating her Bat Torah by reading the Seifer Torah for the first time. The service was followed by a scrumptious kiddush and buffet lunch – with, of course, Sarah Winstone’s delicious latkes. And what a fantastic experience it was to discover as we swiftly transformed the Sanctuary into a restaurant, complete with tables and tablecloths, the flexibility of that wonderful space; one moment, oriented to sacred worship, and then in another, reinvented as a bustling party area. In the early afternoon, the Sanctuary was taken over with activities for the Shabbatots and the children, followed by Israeli dancing for all ages. Upstairs, I led a study session in the Social Area on ‘Tz’dakah and G’milut Chasadim’ – deeds of righteousness and lovingkindness – and there was an exhibition on the theme of our shul – past, present and future – in the Library and adjoining Foyer. Meanwhile, Education Room 2 was given over to a Chill Out Space for the teenagers. We then all got together for tea, doughnuts and refreshments at 3 pm, followed by saying goodbye to Shabbat with Havdalah and Chanukkah candle-lighting for the 7th candle accompanied by Chanukkah songs.
Chanukkah means ‘dedication’, so it was perfectly fitting that we should re-dedicate the new shul building on Shabbat Chanukkah, concluding our activities with a Chanukkat ha-bayit, a rededication of our new home, marked by the fixing of m’zuzot, one by one, starting with the front-door. It was very moving to go round the shul with lifelong member and Emeritus Vice President, Harry Atkins, his building maintenance hat on and hammer in hand; every m’zuzah fixed inaugurating each particular space: The Foyer, the Sanctuary, the Kitchen, and then upstairs to the Social Area, the two Education Rooms, the Pastoral Care Room, the Library, the Office. And what made that pilgrimage even more special, knowing that each room was the gift of a member or friend, each m’zuzah, a gift from those wishing to contribute to and share in the renewal of our congregational home. Traditionally, m’zuzot are not fixed to the doorposts of toilets, but as we went round the shul, two of the toilets, one upstairs and one downstairs, carried a sign just as significant, indicating that they were all-gender; a sign that shul Trustee, Karen Katz had hunted for all over Brighton and Hove to no avail, so arranged for two to be specially made. The shul building is very beautiful, but that’s not what makes it so special. More important than all its aesthetic qualities, is its complete accessibility, facilitated by those toilets, the lift and the absence of a bimah in front of the Ark; all in all, the perfect home for our inclusive community.
Being inclusive means, of course, that everyone can find a home amongst us – not just in theory, but also in practice. As it happens, the two standout memories for me of that special day demonstrate the practice of inclusion and revolve around the toilets. First, every time I was in the downstairs foyer, it was clear that the accessible all-gender toilet was getting frequent use. Then there was the young father who came up to me with his baby daughter in his arms, his face beaming, eager to tell me that for the first time since his baby was born, he had been able to change her nappy when they weren’t at home. For him, the best thing about the new shul was the baby-changer in the male toilets.
It may feel quite painful to recollect that extraordinary Shabbat Chanukkah five years ago, as we celebrate together today on screen rather than in the shul, unable to enjoy that wonderful, welcoming, multipurpose, accessible space. Of course, today isn’t just about going down memory lane. We may not be gathered in our beautiful shul, but we are together as we have been since our first online service on 21st March, sharing sacred time. And just as important, even in the absence of the shul and even when we’re not together online, just as it was during the fifty months it took to rebuild the shul, we are maintaining congregational life through all the moments of sharing and connection and multiple acts of g’milut chasadim, deeds of lovingkindness. Following on from the success of the Rosh Ha-Shanah packages, on Tuesday, Chanukkah packages prepared under Covid-19 guidelines were delivered by mask-wearing volunteers to those in our congregation who are shielding, or isolated. We may still not be able to gather in the shul, but as we celebrate Shabbat Chanukkah, we can re-dedicate ourselves individually and collectively to the sacred task of maintaining the life of the congregation.
Chanukkah calls us to do this. It is a minor festival. All the commemoratives dates that are not mentioned in the Torah and are rabbinic in origin are minor – principally, Chanukkah, Tu Bishvat, Purim and Tishah B’Av. Unlike the major festivals that are in the Torah, all of which are modelled on Shabbat – the pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot and the sacred days at the beginning of the 7th month that became known as Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur – the minor festivals are not rest days. And yet, of all the minor festivals, Chanukkah has a major feel about it. Partly, this may be because in the diaspora at least, it has become more significant in order to compete with Christmas. Mainly it is for two important integral reasons: because it is celebrated for eight days and because its commemoration focuses almost entirely on a ritual enacted at home rather than in the synagogue. And what a wonderful ritual it is; simple, and yet, so deeply meaningful: the lighting of flames, night after night, until the Chanukkiyyah, the nine-branched Chanukkah M’norah, is ablaze with light.
This year, because it is not possible for us to gather in the shul, each nightly lighting is being hosted by an individual family on Zoom, concluding with the 8th night, which I will be hosting. The original reason for Chanukkah lasting eight days is because it says in the Second Book of the Maccabees: ‘They celebrated for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of the feast of Sukkot, mindful of how but a little while before at the feast of Sukkot they had been wandering about like wild beasts in the mountains and caves’. Relating how the Maccabees retook the Temple in 164 BCE in their struggle against the tyrannical regime of Seleucid King Antiochus, cleansed it and rededicated it, neither the Second nor the First Book of Maccabees mention anything about a miracle involving one day’s supply of Temple oil lasting for eight. That story is told in the Babylonian Talmud almost 650 years later; a tale concocted by the rabbinic sages in order to downplay the role of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean priestly family that led the rebellion and later became corrupted by power when an independent Judaea was established in 140 BCE and they took over the reins of political leadership. It is for this reason that the rabbinic sages selected the Book of Zechariah chapter 4 for reading as the Haftarah, the concluding biblical reading on Shabbat Chanukkah. We read at verse 4: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but My spirit says the God of heaven’s hosts’.
So, we have inherited two competing narratives, and yet they are one: The Maccabees won a crucial battle in their struggle against a tyrannical colonial regime and that victory also represented a triumph of the spirit. Contrary to binary ways of making sense of the world and of human endeavour, Chanukkah conveys messages, both, about the imperative of taking action to challenge persecution and oppression and about the importance of cultivating a spirit of hope. Today on Shabbat Chanukkah we are reminded of this double-obligation; a double obligation underlined by the fact that today is also Human Rights Shabbat; so designated because it is the nearest Shabbat to the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. This evening, when Shabbat is over and we light the 3rd candle in our homes and commemorate the first Chanukkah long ago, each one of us has the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the mitzvah, the obligation to repair the world we are inhabiting right now; a task that requires both practical and spiritual engagement. During the past months of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been hard to feel hopeful and in the darkest days of winter, it’s not easy to see signs of renewal. And so, our nightly Chanukkah candle-lighting is more important than ever. May the gathering flames ignite a spirit of hope within us and may we find ways of nurturing that spirit in the months that lie ahead.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
12th December 2011/ 26th Kislev 5781