By Rabbi Charlie Schwartz
The epiphany came half way through the session. My design team, a rag-tag group of Jewish high school students, had already identified the centrality of food in creating powerful experiences with family and friends. Then, during a frenzied brainstorm, a jaunty ninth grader shouted, “Wait – there are no good Hanukkah drinks!”
Thus, after several iterations, the Flaming Hanukkah Milkshake was born: sixteen ounces of milk-chocolate deliciousness with a ribbon of strawberry jelly running throughout, served in a double-paned glass with ignited olive oil floating between the layers, and a nine pronged sparkler put in for good measure.
This design experience was part of a series of Hanukkah Hackathons run by the Brandeis Design Lab – a joint project of The Union for Reform Judaism, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Brandeis|HSP. These sessions instruct teens in the methodology of Design Thinking and provide them with the tools to innovate Jewish life and practice. At first glance, the idea of a Hanukkah Hackathon seems kitschy, a mash-up of old words with new jargon. But the idea of hacking Hanukkah – that is, repurposing and/or refining it in ways not previously imagined – has ancient origins.
After all, Hanukkah is rooted in celebrating the Maccabees’ fight for military and cultural supremacy. The rabbis of the Talmud “hacked” this original purpose, transforming the holiday into a celebration of God’s power, symbolized by the miracle of the oil.
Fast forward to modern times, and Hanukkah is “hacked” again, this time as a tool for integration, providing Jews with a light-focused holiday around the time of the winter solstice on par with Christmas (with presents to match of course). The idea of “hacking Hanukkah” has been part of the Jewish world for a very long time.
This is the goal of the Hackathons: to teach Jewish teens a new approach to listening to each other, to themselves, and to Jewish tradition, and to engage these teens in the age-old process of building, transforming, and hacking Jewish life.
Arielle W., a Hanukkah Hacker who developed a way to share and celebrate everyday miracles, summed up the power of Design Thinking: “Our design team came to the conclusion that we need a way to focus on our journeys and recognize the miracles around us while tuning out the negativity and the haters. This statement didn’t come out of the blue; it came from interviewing members of our team, discovering the memories Hanukkah brought to us, and delving deeper into the meaning of Judaism. It was an intricate process designed to find the root of what we’re really looking for.”
This Spring, the Brandeis Design Lab will use the powerful approach of Design Thinking to give teens the skills to build solutions for real challenges facing the Jewish community. If you are in the Boston area and are interested in taking part in an upcoming Hackathon, or if you would like to learn more about the fellowship or how Design Thinking can change the Jewish world, please be in touch.
In the meantime, I’ll be sipping my flaming milkshake, keeping warm through the soft light of the oil and the knowledge that the Jewish future is in good creative hands.
**Brandeis|HSP cannot be held responsible for injuries or property damage sustained while attempting the Flaming Hanukkah Milkshake.**
Rabbi Charlie Schwartz is the senior Jewish educator and Director of the BIMA and Genesis summer programs at Brandeis|HSP. Charlie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the Brandeis Design Lab visit: brandeis.edu/highschool/designlab