We Jews are no strangers to miracles, but in the great tales of Divine deliverance, the Hanukkah story feels like the runt of the litter.
Compared to the parting of the Red Sea or the burning bush, it’s difficult to know what to make of a jug of oil that lasted longer than expected. Where’s the wonder? Where’s the wow? It all seems a bit pedestrian—diet miracle, zero calories.
This year, during what I hope is my first and only pandemic Hanukkah, I’m asking a different question: What about that first night? If the Maccabees knew they didn’t have enough oil, why light the menorah? Why start a story if you can’t guarantee its ending?
To answer the question, follow me across the Atlantic and 30 years into the past when the Soviet Union was in its dying days, and the global Jewish community was imagining what might come in its wake.
I want to tell every one of those Jewish educators: “Don’t you see?! You’re the miracle!”
Following the Holocaust and decades of Communist oppression, the region’s Jewish communities were hollowed out, drained of life and color. There was nothing to suggest that places like Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova were fertile soil for a Jewish renaissance, but Ralph Goldman—at the time the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, better known as the JDC—had a hunch.
Sitting in a cafe in Soviet Kyiv 30 years ago, he sketched his vision on the back of a napkin: Jewish communities reborn and local Jewish leaders in action in a region stretching from what was once the Pale of Settlement to the Russian Far East. Included, too, would be a network of Hesed social-welfare centers created by his colleague Amos Avgar, who joined him that day.
Looking ahead when so many were locked in a staring contest with the past, they saw these institutions as the first step in providing care and community to the world’s most vulnerable Jews, ultimately fashioning a new generation—young people like Artem Okun, born 30 years ago and now a Jewish educator in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Three decades ago, Artem’s grandfather, Boris, was a typical Soviet Jew. The son of parents who perished in the Holocaust, his identity was a line in his passport more than anything actionable. He kept his head down and kept the traditions he could, and didn’t ask too many questions.
Boris hadn’t been given nearly enough oil to fuel a robust and proud Jewish life, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, he jumped at the chance to get involved—joining the team who helped open a Hesed in his hometown, the small central Ukrainian city of Myrhorod.
His son Alexander took it even further. He started teaching about Jewish history and traditions, helping to organize holiday celebrations, and modeling for his son, Artem, what a fully realized Jewish identity could look like in modern Ukraine.
These were the wild, difficult days of the post-Soviet 1990s, but Boris and Alexander still lit the lamp. They knew the work they were doing would bear its fruit in the next generation and beyond.
Artem is that wish fulfilled, the deepest yearnings of his ancestors come true. A graduate of JDC’s Metsuda leadership program, he established the Informal Jewish Education Conference four years ago—a chance for Jewish communal professionals across Ukraine and throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU) to come together, share best practices and brainstorm ways to deepen their communities’ connection to Jewish tradition.
Last month, the conference held its 10th session—online this time due to the COVID-19 pandemic and drawing participants from 43 cities in eight countries. Among the workshops and classes was a discussion on how these Jewish educators could “create Hanukkah miracles” for their regions in these strange and difficult days.
I want to tell each and every one of those Jewish educators: “Don’t you see?! You’re the miracle!” Thirty years ago, as the emerging Jewish activists of the FSU dreamed up a different future, they had these young people in mind—a leap of faith that has paid off miraculously.
When the destination is sacred enough, you light the lamp anyway, and you trust that yearning, hope and hard work will illuminate the path ahead.
“We must balance preserving the past and building the future,” Artem told me the other day. “I hope that for years to come, I will continue to be able to say with confidence that we are here, we are alive, and that the Jewish communities of the FSU are stronger than ever before.”
The miracle of Hanukkah is the audacity to fight for that brighter future. It’s to look at winter and imagine the spring, to look at a jug with enough oil for just one night and see potential and abundance, not scarcity and disappointment.
The miracle is to look at dark moments for our people—moments when all seems lost—and imagine, just two generations later, Artem Okun and the many others who will follow in his footsteps.
Alex Weisler is a video producer and digital storyteller at JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization.