For some Jewish families, the Hanukkah celebration that begins with candle lighting tonight won’t have quite the same warm glow as other Hanukkahs. The brutality of the attacks and retaliation in Israel, acts against Jews in the U.S., including Needham, and the all-or-nothing positions on Israel and the Palestinians taken by politicians, campus activists and other opinion leaders make this an uncomfortable time.
“I’m finding that when I ask, ‘How are you doing?,’” said Rabbi Jay Perlman of Temple Beth Shalom, “the answer usually isn’t the usual, ‘I’m good.’ The answer is often qualified in some way: ‘Under the circumstances, I’m fine.’ Or, ‘I’m actually not fine.’ What has happened since Oct. 7 has been extraordinarily jarring for people, on a personal level, on an intellectual level, on an emotional level.
“People are deeply impacted by their sense of safety around their Jewishness and also what it means to be connected to Israel.”
Last month, Beth Shalom was the target of a “swatting” attack, when a caller’s (false) bomb threat brought emergency response teams to the site. “The safety and security partners in our area were excellent,” said Rabbi Perlman. “The Needham Police Department, the State Police, CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies) — we are working in concert with them at all times in order to ensure the most safe and secure posture for our community. And after the fact, we received many phone calls from town leadership, state leadership, fire and safety, clergy checking in and reassuring this community that this is not OK, we’re worried about you.”
Rabbi Perlman has faith in Needham as a community, both the informal network of neighbors and the formal leaders. “We have together worked very hard over the years to create a community where acts of anti-Semitism or anti-Islam behavior or racism or anti-LGBTQ are not acceptable. The voices step forward when something happens. And so we’re in a healthy setting.”
Still, for some members of his congregation, a surprising and uncomfortable question has arisen about the tradition of putting menorahs in windows to share the miracle of Hanukkah. Rabbi Perlman said some people are voicing concern, in part after hearing from college students who are wondering about wearing Jewish star jewelry at school. “Is it safe to show that one is Jewish? Is there a risk?”
For those congregants, even the thought is enough to cast a shadow on the holiday known as the Festival of Lights.