Chris Schulz Published

Rabbi Discusses The Importance Of Lighting The Dark This Hanukkah 

Two men stand next to a large menorah, one of them holding a torch. The menorah has two of its nine branches lit, and has a sign hung from it that reads "Happy Chanukah"
Rabbi Zalman Gurevitch holds a torch used to light the menorah in front of the Mountainlair at West Virginia University on the first night on Hanukkah Dec. 7, 2023.
Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah began at sundown on Thursday, Dec. 7 and ends at sundown Friday, Dec.15. Also known as “The Festival of Lights,” the celebration has taken on a new meaning in the context of the war in Gaza.

Reporter Chris Schulz spoke with Rabbi Zalman Gurevitch of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at West Virginia University on the first night of Hanukkah.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Schulz: Can you tell me a little bit about your congregation here at WVU?

Gurevitch: We’re part of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch movement. The movement was founded almost 250 years ago. In America, it was established in 1940. We have about 5,000 Chabad houses around the world; on college campuses, there’s about 300. 

A Chabad center in any given city would be there to meet the Jewish needs of the Jewish community in that city. On a college campus, it’s the same idea. It’s just we’re hyper-focused on serving college students. We’re also the only Chabad in West Virginia, so our responsibility covers any Jewish need in the entire state. Sometimes we use the U.S. Postal Service or whatever it is to meet those needs, I can’t always go in person. But that’s what we try to do.

Schulz: Tell me a little bit about the Hanukkah holiday, some of the history of it and what it means to you.

Gurevitch: Hanukkah is not a biblical holiday. Jews have been celebrating Hanukkah for about 2,000 to 2,300 years. This was during the time of the Second Temple, while the Jews kind of had autonomy, they didn’t have their own king. And the Syrian-Greeks had a cultural war against Jewish people. It wasn’t a physical war, they weren’t trying to chase the Jews out of Israel. They weren’t trying to kill the Jews. They wanted to kill the Jewish culture. 

There was a group of priests called Maccabees and they set out to fight the Syrian-Greeks. And miraculously, they won. The day they won, they came to the temple and in the temple, there was a candelabra, called a menorah. And in order to light a temple, they had to use oil. This oil had to be oil that was never touched by a person that was impure. Now the Syrian-Greeks, when they came to the temple, remember, their goal was a cultural war. So they didn’t steal the oil, or ruin the oil, they just opened up all the jugs of oil, which made it impure so that priests couldn’t use it to light the menorah. Finally, they found one little jug, and that little jug only had enough oil to last for one night. Nevertheless, they had faith and they lit the menorah that night, and it took them eight days to get new oil. During all those eight days, the candelabra remained lit. 

So to remember that, we light candles for eight days. We start off with one candle the first night and then we go up to eight days. Interestingly, the candelabra in the temple only had seven candles. But now we have a candelabra with eight candles to celebrate the miracle.

Schulz: What does Hanukkah mean today in the modern context? Why celebrate and recognize the eight days that the little bit of oil lasted?

Gurevitch: So Hanukkah is unique amongst all the other Jewish customs and practices. Your neighbor might be Jewish, and you will never know. There’s nothing that your neighbor has to do that will make you find out he’s Jewish. He can certainly be completely religious, ultra orthodox, and you’ll never know. 

Hanukkah is the only time when the obligation and fulfillment of the commandment is by lighting the menorah in a place where the public can see it. The idea is that we’re recognizing the great miracle that God did for us, and we’re recognizing it in a public way. It helps us realize that just like God did miracles for us, back in those days, it was five people against the big army, so today, God will continue to do miracles for us. And that will come out victorious. And we will defeat all our enemies from a spiritual perspective and from a physical perspective. 

I think Hanukkah has even more meaning this year, when we’re in one of the darkest times for the Jewish people, the idea that little bit of light spells a lot of darkness. Our focus always has to be to add on light. You can’t chase away darkness with sticks and stones, it’s just about adding in being kind, being good, and doing the right thing, and then the world around you will be a better place. So the focus should be on adding acts of goodness and kindness, and that makes the entire world a better place. 

Schulz: What does this opportunity for community mean both generally, and more specifically, as you were saying, in the political context that we find ourselves now?

Gurevitch: So I think for many new Jewish students, or Jewish community members, a lot of them their Judaism was dormant for a while. The events of Oct. 7 kind of served as a wake up call. When someone hates you so much that they’re willing to do such horrendous acts against you, that makes you think, “What do I stand for? Who am I?” 

And I’ve seen students that haven’t shown up in years, or community members that haven’t been involved, they’re now getting involved, because they realize that there’s something to be part of, they want to be part of the light and do something positive. So that makes it even more meaningful than previous years.

Schulz: I know that the Muslim student community has been vocal at times with regards to the situation in Gaza. Has there been any dialogue that you’re aware of between the two communities? Have you as a faith leader reached out in any way?

Gurevitch: After the Oct. 7 attacks, there were Muslim students who reached out to me and expressed their support. There are people in the community that are kind of bridging that gap. There is no dialogue with individual Muslims. When I meet Muslims, and the ones I know make sure they know that I don’t have enemies based on religion. 

That being said, as a matter of principle, we will not engage in any activities with any organization that is not willing to condemn Hamas, and not willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. If you can’t say yes to those two questions, then I feel like I’ll be betraying my people if we did something together with that organization. 

I would talk to any individual, as an individual to individual. There’s no one that I wouldn’t talk to. But as an organization, I think we have to set that standard. I mean, I can’t imagine a Jewish organization sitting down with a Nazi group during the Holocaust, you know, it’s just not something I can do.

Schulz: Will you all continue to light the menorah here, in front of the Mountainlair, or is that something that you will continue to do privately?

Gurevitch: To fulfill the commandment the menorah has to be lit with a candle of wax, or oil, with something which can be consumed, not with electric which is consumed but it’s not, to symbolize the miracle that lasted for eight days. 

You’re supposed to use candle or oil. So we are giving out these little Hanukkah kits that include 44 candles and a tin menorah for our students to light when they get home. We’re going to have the menorah set up in the Mountainlair with electric bulbs, but that will just be symbolic for the rest of the holiday. So this is a one time thing we do in public, and then we give out the menorah so they can do it at home. 

Schulz: Is there anything about the next week that you are looking forward to or most looking forward to? 

Gurevitch: For me, Hanukkah has many lessons to it. My favorite lesson and what I look forward to is that on the first day, we only light one candle. And on the second night, we only light two candles. And then we have to wait until the eighth night to get up to the eighth candle. You’re just sitting around the candles and watching the candles burn, it gives us certain calmness.

It also teaches us a lesson that every person is always trying to become better. Sometimes we wake up in the morning, we decide that’s it, we’re going to turn our life around. And then we only last for a day or two. So Hanukkah teaches us that when you want to go from darkness to light, you have to take it in steps. If you did one candle today, do two candles tomorrow, now we can establish a lasting impact of change that will last. 

I like taking that message away from Hanukkah. And especially with New Year’s, everyone’s making resolutions and big stuff, and this kind of keeps us in check and helps us make meaningful changes.

Schulz: Do you have any thoughts about the role that Hanukkah has taken on as a bridge to Judaism for the larger population, even though as you said it’s not a biblical holiday? The outsized role of Hanukkah, compared to what it actually means to the Jewish community?

Gurevitch: Like I said, Hanukkah is the only holiday where to fulfill the obligation of the holiday, you need to go out there, you need to light your menorah in a place where the public can see it. I think it symbolizes that we all have the ability to add on light. Even for a person that’s not from the Jewish faith, when they see the menorah, and they see how every night, it’s adding another light and another light, it teaches us that we’re all created in the image of God, every human being. And as such, we each have the ability to make the world a better place. 

As many are aware, Judaism is a non proselytizing religion, we’re not trying to convert anyone. But there is a message, there are the seven Noahide laws, which are Seven Commandments that are for all mankind, and by following those commandments, and recognizing that there’s a creator that created this world by divine providence and is guiding us and is watching over us, that enables us to make the right decisions. 

Think about it, if you’re doing a business deal, and you have an opportunity to cheat and make an extra dollar, nobody will know, a lot of times you can see a situation where no one will ever catch you. But if you know that there’s a God that created you and he’s responsible to provide for you, then you know that you can do it in an honest way. That will bring peace to the world, not just peace, but also, everyone will feel accomplished, fulfilled and purposeful life. So I think the message of Hanukkah, to the wider community is that we all have the ability and obligation to add in light. 

Schulz: Is there anything that I haven’t prompted you to talk about, anything that you feel is important?
Gurevitch: The one thing I would add is that I have met a lot of people in the general community, they reached out to me and said there they are very sad about what’s going on in Israel and they want to support the Jewish community. And you know, sometimes I’ll be shopping and people will walk up to me and say “Hey Rabbi, we support the community in Israel,” and I want you to know that it’s really meaningful for me. Sometimes it’s awkward, I don’t know you don’t know me, but you just walking up to me, it is really meaningful. And we do appreciate your support. Sometimes in a place like West Virginia it could feel lonely to be Jewish, and by speaking up, you create a positive environment. So, for all those that reached out to me, thank you very much.