I had a wonderful experience this week, well almost 100% wonderful.
I was invited by a friend to come speak at their school, a regular primary school in London, to explain Chanukah to the children.
As I arrived, I was struck that I could just drive into the car park, no gates, no questions, no guards. A day later when speaking a JFS. It was 2 sets of gates, questions and plenty of security guards!
Anyway, I was met by my friend who explained to me that it would be a 15-20 minute talk to the children ages 5-11 and then leave a few minutes for questions.
I walked into the main hall and the children were sitting beautifully. It was a wonderful mix of children from different cultures and religions and here was I, the Rabbi, about to try and explain Chanukah.
I always feel these are opportunities to explain to pupils and staff alike that the connection of Jews to Israel goes back thousands of years and that of course the Chanukah story was part of that timeline.
They sat at listened as I told stories of Chanukah past, explained the customs of Doughnuts and the game of Dreidle. My final message was a lovely universal message of Chanukah bringing light to a dark world and how a little light can dispel an awful lot of darkness.
They applauded and then came the questions.
There were a lot of them.
‘Is it like Xmas?’ ‘Is it always in December?’ ‘Do you get lots of presents?’
These are kids’ questions, cute, innocent and genuine.
Another kid put up their hand, a kid from year 5, 9 or 10 years old, ‘Yes’ I said, ‘What is your question?’
He looked at me intensely ‘What is happening in Israel?’
I knew what he meant, he was asking me to discuss the situations with Israel and the Palestinians. I was in no way going to go down that road in a primary school assembly about Chanukah. So, I smiled sweetly and said:
‘In Israel they are also lighting Chanukah candles and it is the country where the most Jews live in the world.’
His face told me that was not the answer he was searching for, but we moved on.
The questions kept coming, they were so interested and inquisitive.
When the assembly finished, they were filing out of the hall and as I walked out the year 5 class, who were still seated, were smiling at me with several hands raised. So, I stopped, crouched down and began answering more questions. These were about why I wear a kippah? What is a synagogue? Do Jews believe in Jesus, question after question asked with such respect and genuine interest.
I went down the line to take questions and came face to face with my young friend again,his hand was raised, I knew this was not going to be a question on Tzizit or Tefillin
He looked at me with that intense look and asked: ‘Why is there a war in Israel?’ This time I felt I couldn’t just skirt around the issue, so I looked at him and softly said: ‘There isn’t a war in Israel, there are lots of problems and we are just trying to find a way to live in peace but it is hard when there are so many people that hate you.’ I paused and looked at him. He looked at me and smiled.
If only it was that easy.
However, it made me think. This child has obviously been absorbing the conflict through the lens of his parents; thus his interest in asking a Rabbi about the Israel situation when all his friends just saw the opportunity to quiz the rabbi about his faith.
To most of the children I was a Jew.
To him I was a Zionist.
As far as I am concerned, I am both!
We have to realise that in today’s world, to many people, including 9-year olds, they cannot separate Judaism from Zionism, which is fine, I can’t either.
As we enter Shabbat Mikketz with Yosef beginning his upward journey from dreamer to leader, we also have Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah. Hopefully a realisation that the dreams of Yosef, the lights of Chanukah and the monthly renewal of the moon are all symbols for our eternal people, inspired by our eternal Torah which promised us that even after the Hasmoneans were defeated and our people exiled by the Romans that we would one day return to our God given ancestral homeland.
I couldn’t explain all that to a 9-year old boy but I hope and pray that even if he and his parents would not understand that we as the Jewish people would.
As Rashi reminds us at the start of the Torah: ‘Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded. Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.’
The lesson says Rashi is for us, let us hope we continue to learn the lesson.
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chanukah Sameach,
Rabbi Andrew Shaw