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At Hanukkah, Remember, Each of Us Can Make a Difference

Whether it is on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Israel or throughout the world, whether it is for those suffering in Darfur, whether it is in our own neighborhood for people who need assistance and support, we can make a difference
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the


I am not a product of the civil resistance generation. I did not march for civil rights, nor was I involved in the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, these events were simply not part of my reality. Yet, when it came to one issue I put on my marching shoes and made my protest known.
In the late ’60s, I recall reading Eli Wiesel’s book, The Jews of Silence, in which he wrote of the life of Soviet Jews and their difficulties behind the Iron Curtain. When I finished the book I wasn’t sure to whom the title was referring. Was it Soviet Jews who for many years were not allowed to raise their voices as free Jews, or was it the Jewish community throughout the world who did not protest? I recall in the middle ’70s how the issue of Soviet Jewry was put on the worldwide agenda. We began to wake up to the extreme hardships to which our brothers and sisters had been subjected for so many decades. As a young rabbi entering the rabbinate in the late ’70s, it was one of many issues on my plate.
But all that changed in June 1983 when I traveled to Moscow and the then Leningrad with Rabbi Mordecai Simon, of blessed memory. It was the most meaningful 10 days of my life as we spent our time visiting with Refuseniks, teaching and speaking Hebrew with many of them and conveying messages from our sponsor, Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry. We also presented them with many contraband Jewish items including a shechita knife, Hebrew books, tefillin, talitot, as well as medicine and clothes.
I came back from those 10 days energized and committed to their cause. Working in my congregation, Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Hyde Park, and in the community, I attempted on a personal level to raise awareness of the plight of our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union.
On November 8, 1985, I was chairman of a rabbinic demonstration march for Soviet Jewry in downtown Chicago. It was truly an historic event. Arranged through the Chicago Board of Rabbis, over 100 rabbis of all denominations marched from Spertus Institute to the Federal Kluczynski Building. Dressed in talitot and each of us carrying a sefer Torah, we marched north on Michigan Avenue to Jackson, west to State, north to Adams, and west to Dearborn. We recited prayers, sang songs and carried placards on behalf of our brothers and sisters. We presented a declaration to Congresswoman Cardiss Collins who carried a message to President Ronald Reagan to discuss the issue of Soviet Jewry with the leader of the Soviet Union.
And then, on December 6, 1987, I was present with 250,000 other Jews and non-Jews in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall. It was a broad-based mobilization of people who came from all over the United States. The message on the eve of the Washington, D.C., summit between the Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan was to demand that Gorbachev extend his policy of Glasnost to Soviet Jews by allowing their emigration from the USSR.
Soon after that, the doors began to open. Since then more than 1 million Jews have left the Soviet Union and are citizens of the State of Israel. Over 400,000 have come to these shores and approximately 100,000 to Germany. Today the former Soviet Union is a different place. While anti-Semitism still exists today, there are Jewish schools, synagogues, rabbis, religious and cultural programs. In November in Yalta, Limmud FSU 2008, a pluralistic event, brought 1,000 Jews together for Jewish study opportunities.
After the arrest of one of the most courageous of the Refuseniks, Natan Sharansky, by the KGB, he reported they tried to mock him with a question, “Who do you think is going to help you? Look who they are – a bunch of students and housewives. We are the KGB.” I’m pleased to note for history that this collection of students and housewives defeated the KGB. Nothing is impossible.           

Hanukkiah, Photo by Andrea Rota from Flickr with Creative Commons license

I think of this message as we celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. The story of Hanukkah informs us that the Maccabees stood up to the Syrian Greeks and refused to succumb to threats of physical annihilation and cultural oppression. We remember their victory and for eight days we recite prayers, light candles and rejoice in the fact that they kept Judaism and the Jewish people alive.
I also am cognizant of the Biblical story that we are currently reading. The story of Joseph occupies the latter part of the Book of Genesis. This brazen young man became a leader in Egypt and single-handedly saved the Egyptian people and his family from famine with his plan for food conservation. Where would we be without Joseph and his strength of character as he resolved to make a difference in his world?
All of these stories convince me that we can make a difference. Students and housewives can stand up to the KGB and the Soviet Union; one family can bring down the Syrian Greeks; and one person can save a country and his people.
This message is one that is reiterated by Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “Where there are no people, strive to be a person.” Or, in another translation, “In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.”
Each of us can be a person who can make a difference and each of us can be a leader. It does need to be on the worldwide stage. We can do so in our own backyard and within our own community. Whether it is on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Israel or throughout the world, whether it is for those suffering in Darfur, whether it is in our own neighborhood for people who need assistance and support, we can make a difference.
I don’t really think that I personally had a great deal to do with the Exodus of Soviet Jewry. However, I’d like to believe that I, along with hundreds and thousands, did make a difference. We live in a better world today because of my trip to the Soviet Union in 1983, my chairmanship of the protest march in Chicago of 1985 and my presence on the National Mall in December, 1987. I’m proud of that participation. But that is now in the past. It is my task to continue to work and to protest, to sound the alarm and to insure that the world will be a better place for my children and grandchildren.
As we light the candles of Hanukkah and display them in the public arena, and as we read the story of Joseph, let us pledge to remember Hillel’s dictum and actualize its message in our lives.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is a Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative

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