Jewish Groups Light Candles to Illuminate Injustice


Several leaders in the Philadelphia Jewish community linked candlelightings to the continuing outcry over black men being killed in police altercations. 


How do you shine a light on issues of social justice during Chanukah without it becoming too political? 

That's a question some leaders in the Philadelphia Jewish community considered as they linked candlelightings to the continuing outcry over black men being killed in police altercations. 

The holiday, which celebrates Jews retaining their cultural identity despite the persecution of the Syrian Greeks trying to Hellenize them, is indeed an ideal time to bring attention to those being subjected to injustice, local clergy said. As Rabbi David Ackerman of Congregation Beth Am Israel put it, "It's about light in the face of darkness."

But Ackerman and other leaders are also exercising discretion to ensure that they can use Chanukah as an opportunity to show solidarity with the black community and still retain the identity of both the holiday and their congregations as religious, rather than political, organizations. 

For example, Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, organized a candle lighting Tuesday at Zion Baptist Church in Ardmore. Main Line Reform Temple, Beth David Reform Congregation and other Christian congregations joined in the celebration. Organizers also invited members of the Lower Merion Police Department. They did not, however, invite elected officials.

"Not that they would not have been welcome, but it was important that this not turn into a political rally," said Ackerman.

Speakers made references to recent events in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and elsewhere, but nothing was of an "overtly political" nature, he said. The shootings and protests "are part of the motivation for us to join together to send a message, which is that all lives matter, and that we stand in brotherhood and sisterhood with our neighbors and friends whose lives matter."

In another example, rather than call for specific changes in police tactics, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia spoke in general terms about what can be done to combat injustices in a letter sent to the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.

"There is clearly much more work that all of us must do to achieve racial justice and the reality of full and equal protection for all," the letter stated. 

Neither the word "police" nor references to the grand jury decisions themselves appear in the letter.

"I think that with any complicated issue, we have to look at the mutlifaceted sides of that issue, and leaping to conclusions and pointing fingers at one thing or another isn’t often going to be helpful," said Adam Kessler, the director of JCRC. "As community leaders, it behooves all of us to be open to the shades of gray and the nuances that exist on all sides of a very complicated topic."

Kessler and other leaders in the Jewish community were planning to meet with black clergy on Thursday in an effort to "rekindle old connections between blacks and Jews."

"We have a long history of suffering, and we were partners in the civil rights struggle in the '60s, and in subsequent years, the connections have not been nearly as strong as they once were. We think we should be working more closely together than we do," said Kessler.

Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation, had a unique opportunity to mix social action with Chanukah celebrations because it shares space in a West Philadelphia church with other religious and secular groups, including the International Action Center. The IAC, an activist organization, collaborated with a number of other groups to put together a townhall meeting at the church on Tuesday to talk about efforts to overcome "police brutality and the racist government policies," according to a Facebook group.

While Kol Tzedek wasn't among the event sponsors, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann figured there were "bound to be people who were going to this event and who were Jewish" who would "want to address these issues, so what a perfect opportunity." 

With that in mind, she, along with leaders of Mishkan Shalom, another Reconstructionist congregation, and the Conservative Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, gathered to light Chanukah candles, recite the mourner's kaddish, sing songs and talk about the violence before the townhall meeting.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom played guitar and sang an original song which featured the chorus "Light one candle in the dark."

He said he had changed some words of the song, which he wrote in 1994, for the occasion, for example, changing 'God' to 'cause,' "because not everyone here is theistic, and I added 'blood' to 'oil' because I originally wrote it with a sense of the health of the planet in dedication of Chanukah, but now it's also about this particular issue of racial justice."



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