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Dear Friends,

When my children were young, I resisted telling them the Hanukkah story. I had a daughter and its exclusively male protagonists left no room for strong female leadership. Adding another layer of myth to an already mythical account, I invented Peninah, the fastest runner in all of Israel.

Peninah – if you must know – volunteered for service after Judah Maccabee announced that there was only one day’s worth of oil left to burn. Off Peninah ran to the ancient port of Jaffa to purchase oil. The Israelites looked to the east to see the flame flicker weaker and weaker by the day. And every evening they looked to the west to see if fleet-footed Peninah was returning. Just as the flame was about to die, just as they gave up hope, on that eighth night, Peninah came running like a gazelle up the Judean hills with a full pack of oil on her back, filling the Temple menorah with oil and renewing the hopes of all of Israel.

The story was a compelling fabrication of course, but why not invent a story of the woman who literally delivers the necessary oil to the Temple?! Well here’s why not: on their first day back from religious school at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, both of my children told me that they would not return because they had nothing to learn: as it turned out, none of their teachers knew about Peninah!

Of course there were two other dynamic women in stories related to Hanukkah, though far more brutal and upsetting to children. The story of Chana from the Talmud tells the tale of a mother who becomes a martyr after her seven sons were killed by Antiochus. And the story of Judith recounts a woman of uncommon courage and ingenuity, an individual whose initiative and leadership are chronicled in brutal detail.

Judith is depicted as a virtuous, yet daring, widow from the town of Bethulia, which is under siege by the invading Assyrian General Holofernes. Frustrated by her town’s leaders’ passive reliance on God’s deliverance, she takes matters into her own hands. She insinuates herself into the enemy’s military camp, beguiles Holofernes with salted cheese and wine into slumber, and decapitates him, thereby disabling his forces and rescuing her community from certain death.

Whether Peninah, Chana, or Judith, or even Mattathias and his five brave Maccabee sons, the story of Hanukkah is a story of individual agency that could not be more timely now. For at this moment of pandemic, it is only by following these models of leadership and active initiative that we can face our world historic moment. Scientists are developing vaccines to defeat Covid-19; health care workers valiantly save lives; our faculty and students sustain Jewish learning and professional development; and our alumni provide vital leadership and support to communities far and wide.

And just as important: each of you is stepping up to support so many important projects in our world, including providing your own families and selves the space to recognize the pain and hardship of this moment. It is through our agency, as citizens and human beings, by which we can forge alliances and build a better society to secure justice for all.

Action on behalf of the good, the sacred, the righteous, and the just – personified by so much of this holiday – is a key message for all of us this Hanukkah. With each candle we kindle during these eight nights, may our lives and our deeds bring ever more light into our world.

Chag urim sameach, happy Festival of Lights,

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.


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