Reflecting Back on Chanukah: Sparking a Chain Reaction of Jewish Engagement

by Yossi Prager

Each year, the bright lights of Chanukah cause me to wonder how we can better kindle the passion for Judaism and the Jewish people among the next generation of American Jews. In an effort to consider this question publicly, over the past eight days AVI CHAI’s blog has featured guest posts written by educators in the field that provide interesting examples of how to “spark” Jewish flames. Coincidentally, I have been reading about the physical nature of light, and I have come to appreciate ways in which the science of candle-lighting can inform educators seeking to engage Jews of all ages.

Here’s a simple explanation of what happens when we light a Chanukah candle (the same applies to olive oil). Candles are packed with carbon and hydrogen. The heat of the flame that lights the candle causes the carbon and hydrogen atoms in the candle to move around, or jiggle. In jiggling, the atoms of the candle first become a gas and then approach and combine with oxygen in the surrounding air to form carbon dioxide and water. The candle burns and disappears because it turns into carbon dioxide and water vapor that we do not see.

The combining of the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms generates more heat, which in turn jiggles more of the atoms in the candle, leading to more carbon dioxide and water and more heat. The chain reaction will continue until there is no fuel left. This is not the end of the story, of course, since the carbon dioxide and water are ultimately absorbed by growing trees, whose wood serves as fuel for new fires. See this brief and wonderful clip of Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman explaining fire in this way to non-scientists.

The critical role of heat in jiggling the atoms is clear. Where does the light of the flame come from? It turns out that the light is not a result of the jiggling of the atoms but of the change in energy levels of the electrons in the participating atoms. Light is emitted when excited electrons return to less-excited states. Great mysteries remain about the nature of light, which acts at different times in mutually-contradictory ways. Scientists have developed mathematical equations that enable us to harness and exploit light, but physicists are no better than poets at explaining its inherent nature.

It seems to me deeply appropriate that we commemorate the miracles of Chanukah – which involved reclaiming sovereignty over physical land and regaining spiritual freedom – by lighting candles, an act that transforms both matter and energy. Viewing the candles through the prism of science deepens my appreciation of the extent to which the natural world in which we live is itself miraculous. And the science behind the candle lighting does even more: it provides some principles that can inform our thinking as philanthropists and Jewish educators. Here are my takeaways, which relate to a common theme in the AVI CHAI blog’s Chanukah guest posts – energizing young people to be creators:

  1. Like a fire, Jewish educators need to start a chain reaction. The goal of Jewish education should be to inspire students to generate their own light and heat that will further inspire others. We do not have enough Jewish educators for the success of Jewish education to depend only on educators. In reporting on its alumni program, Reshet Ramah provides a great example of a chain reaction, as a participant-initiated Shabbat program energized others to take responsibility for the next programs.
  2. Like a fire which can only get started with sufficient heat, education requires that passions be raised. Students will only agree to be part of a chain reaction if their Jewish education causes them to care deeply. This has two implications. First, the education has to be sufficiently rich and immersive to generate passion. Second, it has to feel relevant and meaningful to students. In this regard, I was impressed by the range of the high school Judaic courses at Golda Och Academy, which was described by Flora Yavelberg, the Judaic Studies Chair at the day school. Effective education requires offerings that are both substantive and responsive to the interests of individual students.
  3. Electrons emit light when they return to levels of lower energy, not when they are excited. So should students. If young people are meaningfully excited by a Jewish educational experience, whether at a day school, summer camp or Birthright Israel, the success should be seen over the long-term, when students return to their regular levels of energy. Daniella Pressner, Principal of Akiva Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, provides a worthy conceptual model based on her experience with Music Row: a Jewish education that seeks to produce Jewish grit, patience and pride – character traits that endure.

In the physical world, it is impossible to create new matter and energy; the universe expands through the transformation of the matter and energy that already exists. The same is true of our Torah and traditions. All the raw material needed to transform Jewish life is in our hands. We need to raise the heat, light the flame and enable the chain reaction to get started.

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.