finding light

This Hanukkah, flooding the darkness with light

During these winter weeks, the days are as short as the nights are long. The world goes darker earlier, with the sun going down before many leave the office or children leave school. 

It would make sense that Hanukkah arrives at the darkest time of year, and it can become easy to see how the darkness of the season reflects the darkness in our society. This year we saw an unprecedented rise in antisemitism across the country and a general rise in hate crimes. In times like this, it is more important than ever to follow the Hanukkah tradition of being and spreading the light so it reaches even the darkest corners of the world. 

It’s that context that makes our traditional emphasis on light in our Hanukkah celebrations, and conversations important and inspiring. And yet, I also find inspiration from the resolve of the Maccabees –– the heroes of the Hanukkah story – who stood up in the face of destruction and tragedy to imagine something new.

In many ways, the Hanukkah story mirrors the recent history of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life building. Just as the Holy Temple was attacked centuries ago, four years ago, our sacred space — home to three congregations — was also violated and desecrated. As the Maccabees suffered at the hands of people driven to violence by antisemitism and hatred, so too did the members of the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations and their loved ones. 

The resilience and hope of the Maccabees enabled them to pick up the pieces; to cleanse the Temple and to shine a new light. In this spirit, the new Tree of Life seeks to remember, rebuild and renew, to transform a site of tragedy into a site of hope, remembrance and education.

The miracle of Hanukkah therefore reminds us of the importance of persistence and perseverance in our mission to work toward ending antisemitism, racism and identity-based hate in all forms. As we have learned from the Maccabees, we can honor the memories of those we have lost by healing, growing and strengthening our community and by reimagining the possibilities of our future. 

As individual Maccabees came together to form a caring, resolute community, Tree of Life is full of heroes who work continuously to protect and strengthen the traditions and relationships we have built over the years.

Since taking on the role as Tree of Life’s inaugural CEO, I’ve found inspiration in the small, individual acts of heroism throughout the community: the grieving family member who wakes up every day committed to uphold their loved one’s memory and make the world a better place; the Jewish individual hundreds of miles away who felt the urgent need to act in response to what happened at a community to which they have no direct ties beyond a shared religious heritage; the non-Jewish neighbor who understands the immense importance of the Tree of Life to the community and invests in its healing, rebuilding and transformation.

The vision of transforming a site of tragedy into a site of both memorialization and hope starts by celebrating the bravery and resilience of our community. We know that our reach has the potential to be unlimited and that many others are also committed to our mission of working toward ending antisemitism and all identity-based hate. 

The dedication of people I’ve met and those who I have yet to meet has provided sparks of hope for me as I began my work at the new Tree of Life. The resilience, courage and strength of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the city of Pittsburgh and the Jewish community across the country have shown that even in the times of darkest adversity, we can puncture the darkness with light. 

We must heed the lessons from the Hanukkah story and trust that whatever oil we may have left can sustain us in a season of darkness. When people come together, the flames grow bigger and the light shines brighter. This Hanukkah season, I pray that by coming together we can all work to promote a message of peace and continue the work toward countering antisemitism.

Carole Zawatsky is the inaugural CEO of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh.