How to Say “Happy Hanukkah” in Greek

Dec 8th, 2012

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On Wednesday, we helped children in a Jewish elementary school in Greece prepare decorations for Hanukkah, the upcoming winter holiday which celebrates the victory of light over darkness, of the miraculous over the commonplace, of Maccabees over ….Greeks . (In Greece, the children learn that the victory was won over the Assyrians. What I would call a nice save. And true-ish.)

I cut out shapes of menorahs and sivivonim (dreidels) from colorful paper, and glued them onto large poster paper with a girl named Alexandra and a boy named Niko, who both understood rudimentary Hebrew. How am I supposed to wrap my head around that?

My employer, The Jewish Agency for Israel, sends a few dozen shlichim (emissaries) all over Europe (plus several hundred more around the world) with the goal of connecting global Jewry to Israel, both the People and the place. Experience over the years has proven that through Jewish cultural education and engagement with Israel, both Diaspora communities and Israel emerge stronger. Thousands of young Jews find their way to long term Israel programming (and / or Aliyah) via their shaliach, and many shlichim return to Israel with a strong sense of belonging to a pluralistic, global Jewish community that they hadn’t grown up with as native Israelis.

As we all know from business, politics, and community work, everything rides on personal relationships. One hundred op-eds on Israel’s right to exist or on pride in Jewish identity will not do the work of one adorable, articulate, and energetic 18 or 25 year old Israeli telling students in London, Paris, Milano, or Brussels what day-to-day Israel is like, off the screens and pages, and simply face to face.

This past week the Shlichim serving in the EU (and a few relevant managers and staffers, like me, from the mothership in Jerusalem supporting their efforts) met for a few days of sessions on best practices and brainstorming in Thessaloniki, Greece – a community that was very nearly wiped out by Hitler in 1942. The vibe in this waterfront university town is something like Seattle meets Acre by way of the East Village. While we spent most of the time inside the Jewish community center in meetings and workshops, we took one morning to see Jewish history and life in the city, which included activities with kids in the school.

It is hard to overstate how moved the staff was to have fifty Israelis come to dance and sing with the kids. Our visit made the gym teacher – a 6-foot tall, 250 pound man in a track suit – cry.

It is also hard to overstate how crazy, and how right, it felt to be celebrating pre-Hanukah in Greece with living, breathing young Jews.

What a victory of the human spirit that we survive again and again, and splendidly. And how strangely stubborn and forgiving, that we stay to grow again in communities which would have easily let us be lost, something Thessaloniki has in common with Budapest, a city with an Israel Cultural Center and a flourishing young Jewish community. And more than one shaliach.

The question of why Jews stay in these places when there is a modern state of Israel a short plane ride away is one that vexes many people. However, the fact of a Diaspora by choice (or by economic necessity) should surprise no one, because this tension, too, is an integral part of our history. Goshen in Egypt did not empty out of the Ben Jacobs when the famine in Canaan was long over , just as Babylon did not empty out during the Second Temple period; life there continued to flourish alongside the life that flourished anew in Jerusalem.

It is clear that between the ultimate home that is Israel, and the actual home for millions of Jews that is not, is a third place: the dialectic between here and there, between the reality and the ideal, that could have destroyed us many times, and instead – miraculously – just makes us stronger. The key is how far we have always been willing to go for one another.

At the Athens airport, I bought a lighter from Greece. The better to light my menorah with, in Israel.

Obligatory disclaimer: This is my personal blog; views expressed above may or may not reflect the views of my employer.

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