OPINION: Light amid darkness – a Chanukah for our times

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OPINION: Light amid darkness – a Chanukah for our times

Lighting the chanukiah at Trafalgar Square, Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch reflects on a time of both joy and pain, protests and solidarity

Left to right: Adrian Cohen of London Jewish Forum, David Baddiel, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl, JLC Chair Keith Black and Rabbi Hackenbroch
Left to right: Adrian Cohen of London Jewish Forum, David Baddiel, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl, JLC Chair Keith Black and Rabbi Hackenbroch

This past Monday, I had the privilege of lighting the chanukiah at Trafalgar Square along with other dignitaries including the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.  As I stood gazing at the lights of the chanukiah, my festive joy was tempered by the pain and anguish that we have all felt since 7 October both for Israel and the shocking rise in antisemitism closer to home.

For many weeks now, Trafalgar Square itself has witnessed hostile protests expressing virulent antisemitic and anti-Israel chants in front of massive crowds of participants and onlookers. Central London and Trafalgar Square itself has become a no-go zone for Jews on those days for fear of provocations and attacks.

In an ironic twist, Trafalgar Square has also become a focal point for cross communal Jewish unity, with Jews from all walks of life standing shoulder to shoulder in a vigil for the release of the hostages.

Just a couple of weeks later, the city witnessed an unprecedented march of 105,000 people demonstrating that antisemitism has no place and will not be tolerated in the UK. Our community took strength from the fact that we were surrounded by many wonderful loyal friends, who supported our right to live as Jews without fear or intimidation.

The celebration of Chanukah and the lighting of the menorah is, in essence, a celebration of Jews being able to practice their faith uninhibited. It was for this very reason that the commandment of lighting the menorah was, from its inception, prescribed to be placed at the entrance way to the home.

It would publicise both the miracle of the oil and the fact that we could live proudly as Jews. Yet, over the centuries, as Jews faced growing antisemitism and persecution, it became impractical for Jews to light the menorah freely without them being destroyed. At this point, the Rabbis felt compelled to decree that the menorah should be confined to be lit behind closed doors in the Jewish home.

However, it wasn’t just the menorah that was forced to withdraw from the public arena; Jews also found themselves increasingly withdrawing from wider society. In 1930s Europe, there was the common expectation of “a Jew in the home and an Englishman in the street”.

As we are aware, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and with the flourishing state of Israel, society has been filled again with Jews being an acceptable part of society. Over the years, there have been increasingly more opportunities for Jews to engage, contribute and share our light with a diverse and accepting society.

This openness and respect for difference was reflected in public displays of kippot being worn in the streets and no longer were there professions or careers off-limits to Jews. More recently we have seen local councils supporting the building of eruvim (Shabbat boundaries), a sukkah at hospitals (and this year even at London Zoo!) and public menorah lightings around the world. This is something we have cherished and celebrated.

The response to the anti-Israel and antisemitism sentiments that I have witnessed, is an increased awareness by many of their  Jewish identity. This has led in turn to re-engagement of Jewish practices. Shul attendances have increased as people wish to identify with other Jews and with Israel. Some might even suggest this as the emergence of a more resolute and faithful Jew. This perhaps is the light of hope that we are witnessing during this period of darkness.

A public lighting celebrates the ability of Jews to contribute and play a full role in society, no longer needing to hide or be apologetic for their traditions and values from British society. As Jews we stand as ambassadors of light, and continue to contribute to our community, our country and bring greater light to the world at large.

• Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is senior rabbi of Woodside Park United Synagogue and chair of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue

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