I attended the Menorah Lighting at Mercerdale Park on Dec. 7, the first day of Hanukkah. It was a joyful celebration full of happy people, with live music, hot apple cider, traditional food, group songs, prayers, blessings, balloons — and lots of lights, including the Christmas tree that was lit on Dec. 1.
Hanukkah is known as the “Festival of Lights” and recalls the victory more than 2,100 years ago of “a militarily weak but spiritually strong Jewish people over the mighty forces of a ruthless enemy,” according to the printed programs handed out by Chabad.org, which organized the event.
Why did I go? I’m not Jewish and I could be a better Christian. I don’t attend a synagogue or church regularly, although I do believe there is a Higher Power in the universe that may be beyond human comprehension. But this year I felt it was especially important to participate in this symbolic community event. The recent antisemitic incidents that have occurred right here on Mercer Island and elsewhere have been deeply disturbing.
Some of my family live less than a block from Herzl-ner Tamid, which was defaced with graffiti by vandals. I am a longtime member of the Stroum Jewish Community Center, and I live near Island Synagogue.
I have visited Israel twice and toured that country, including the West Bank. I was in towns near Gaza that were attacked by Hamas last Oct. 7, and saw their bomb shelters and safe rooms in schools. I also went to Hebron, the site of a murderous terrorist attack decades ago. I have known and written about the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and Germany, and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.
After meeting with “Refuseniks” in Moscow in 1984, I began a series in The Seattle Times called “Lifeline Letters,” which urged citizens to write to the Kremlin on behalf of Soviet political prisoners, many of them Jewish, who were imprisoned in the Gulag. I have friends in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, some of them former Mercer Islanders.
So what happened at the Herzl and other places was profoundly troubling to me, as it was to many of us. I applaud the statement issued by the City Council deploring these and all antisemitic acts.
But it’s time for all of us to do more than simply deplore. We need to speak out to condemn and prevent such intolerable acts. Silence is complicity. We cannot be silent.
Mercer Island’s Jewish community is substantial, estimated at about 20 percent of our population. We have two synagogues, plus the Stroum Jewish Community Center, Yeshiva School, and the Friendship Circle.
For background, I met with David Rosenbaum, deputy mayor of Mercer Island, whose father heads Herzl-ner Tamid, the synagogue that was vandalized last month with antisemitic graffiti. Here’s what he told me:
“The events of the last few weeks have galvanized the community in a way that was lacking before. It’s not enough to just be against what happened. It’s important to take a clear stand. We have to be louder than ‘It’s not right.’ Anyone who understands needs to be clear on that. We seem to have different standards on this.”
Rosenbaum’s grandparents fled from pogroms in Russia, and his mother’s family died in the Holocaust. His grandfather had a swastika burned on his lawn in New York in the 1950s. His wife was targeted by neo-Nazi hate groups several years ago.
“We need to break the cycle” of antisemitism, Rosenbaum said. He believes that people’s reactions fall into three camps: 1) those who say this is “totally wrong,” 2) those who say the Middle East is “complicated,” and 3) those who condemn Israel for occupying Palestine, glorify Hamas, and chant the mantra, “From the River to the Sea.”
“This means we still have work to do,” he said. “The story of Israel is the ultimate anti-colonial story. It is just irrefutable in the historical record that Jews have occupied that land for centuries.
“Radical fanaticism” must be fought, Rosenbaum said. “Words really do matter. Rallies in support of Hamas can hurt people. They want to commit genocide: It’s in their charter. If you are not fully informed, than take the time to get informed. It makes a difference.”
At the Mercerdale event, I spoke with Rabbi Yechezkel Kornfeld, who heads Island Synagogue. “There’s a lot of darkness in the world now,” he said. “Jews are coming together throughout the world to bring light. Hanukkah is a celebration of light over darkness.”
The first public menorah lighting actually was held on a cold night in Philadelphia in 1974, when Rabbi Abraham Shemtov had the idea of lighting a menorah in front of Independence Hall, which houses the Liberty Bell. The first one was crude and made of wood, and few people gathered for the event. But since then, thousands of public menorahs have been built and lit on public and private places around the U.S. and worldwide. “Jews from Moscow to Minnesota, from Monaco to Martinique, gather every year to celebrate the holiday with the lighting of an oversized menorah, usually 9-feet tall or more,” the Chabad.org website proclaims. This year menorahs were lit in Washington, D.C., Berlin, and even in Gaza.
As the Chabad program states: “A little light expels a lot of darkness.”
This story first appeared in the Mercer Island Reporter.