Shavei Israel celebrates Hanukah 2012 around the world

Shavei Israel celebrates Hanukah 2012 around the world

Perhaps more than any other holiday on the Jewish calendar, Hanukah celebrates the determined survival of the Jewish people. Over two millennia ago a small band of fighters, led by Judah the Maccabee, fought against the Hellenist rulers of ancient Israel who sought to assimilate the Jewish people into the Greek Empire.

The resulting victory, in many ways, presages the modern rebirth of the independent Jewish state. Moreover, it gives comfort and hope to the many brave individuals from Lost Tribes and hidden Jewish communities who today are fighting their own way towards reclaiming a once embattled Jewish identity.

In honor of the holiday, we asked three members of Jewish communities with which Shavei Israel works to share with us their Jewish journeys and what Hanukah has meant to them over the years. Each comes from a very different part of the world – Itzkhak Lhungdim is a Bnei Menashe from India, Jaume Folch i Mola is a student of our emissary to the Bnei Anousim, Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, in Spain, and Filtzgova Tova bat Avraham is a Russian Subbotnik Jew – but all are deeply grateful to be able to openly and joyously celebrate the Hanukah miracle this year.

Itzkhak Lundgdim and family

Itzkhak Lhungdim from Bongmol Tampak, India (Bnei Menashe)

I was born in 1970 in the village of Bongmol Tampak near the Indian border with Myanmar [Burma]. But it wasn’t until 1997 that, by the grace of Hashem [G-d], I came to practice Judaism when I became a member of the Beith Shalom community in Churachandpur, Manipur, Shavei Israel’s main center for the Bnei Menashe in India.

Even before that, though, I remember that, when I was a small boy, there was once an earthquake where we lived and my grandfather cried out, “The children of Menashe [one of the biblical sons of Joseph] are still living!” Remarkably, no one was hurt.

As I got more involved in Judaism, I did not live close to the synagogue but still I would walk there by foot – four or five kilometers away – every Shabbat. I would ask the leaders of the community to teach me about Judaism and I would write down everything I heard. I was so happy in my heart.

In the year 2000, we established a new synagogue in Churachandpur and I was appointed as a chazzan [cantor]. By then, I was knowledgeable enough to be able to teach the community myself about Jewish law and subjects such as how to observe the holy Sabbath. I sometimes traveled to other Bnei Menashe communities to teach, as well.

My connection to the Jewish community continued to grow. In 2005, I married my beloved wife, Leah. Then, in 2007, I was selected to participate in the first Shavei Israel seminar to train as a Bnei Menashe “Fellow.” The seminar was held that year in Nepal and the teachers included Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, Rabbi Hanoch Avitzedek [Shavei Israel’s Director of the Bnei Menashe Aliyah and Absorption Department], Tzvi Khaute [Shavei Israel’s coordinator for the Bnei Menashe], and Rabbi Yehuda Gin, originally from Manipur and now living in Israel.

Today, with the blessing of Hashem and through the hard work of Shavei Israel, I too have made aliyah to Eretz Israel. My wife and I now have three daughters and one son and we live near Jerusalem.

I first celebrated Hanukah in 1997. All the community members in Churachandpur lit the candles together. The story of the holiday and its miracles touched my heart – how Hashem hears those who do teshuva [repentance] and how He helped the high priest Matisyahu and his sons fight against the Greeks, saving all the Jews from their enemies.

With the blessing of G-d, I will observe the festival this year with my family in happiness and good health, with love and joy, in our bodies and our souls.  May Hashem bless the entire nation of Israel and let those who are still in galut [the Diaspora] be permitted to make aliyah to Israel soon. And may G-d bless Shavei Israel for all its work with the Bnei Menashe. Amen!

Jaume Folch i Mola

Jaume Folch i Mola from Barcelona, Spain (Bnei Anousim)

When I was growing up, you never would have thought my profile fit that of a religious person or even someone who had a minimally conscious relationship with the Creator. I was raised in a Catholic family but, when I was only about ten years old, I concluded that dogma of any kind makes no sense. Making a hasty extrapolation, I decided that any religion was false. I then followed a classically “rationalist” path: in high school, I sought answers about the true nature of reality in philosophy and science, and in university I studied physics. But I did not find what I was seeking.

As my scientific career was getting going, I became friends with a married couple in Barcelona. We were both involved in the struggle for the political freedom of my country, Catalonia, and we shared a deep philosophical affinity. One day, they told me that they had converted to Judaism. I didn’t understand. How was it possible that such an educated and intelligent couple had decided to adopt Judaism, a “religion?”

This apparent contradiction broke my many years of prejudice against religion and led to my first inquiries about Judaism for myself. My approach, however, was very impulsive and disorganized and led to a crisis several years later. I decided I needed to go deeper, so I started attending classes at the Chabad in Barcelona. I eventually expanded my participation to full Shabbat services and later began studying with Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham [Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in the Barcelona region].

My first Hanukkah was in 2009 in Barcelona’s lovely Turo Park. I remember experiencing a profound joy in re-living the history of the Maccabees, which emphasizes the stark distinction between the limiting mindset of that coercive pagan nation of the ancient Greeks and the luminous and liberating vision centered in the Torah of the L-rd and the people of Israel.

For this year’s Hanukah, I welcome the opportunity to more deeply internalize the fundamental concepts and halachot [Jewish laws] of the festival and to celebrate with the Jewish community of Barcelona. I will join Chabad once again as we light the menorah in Sant Jaume Square. I look forward to all that The Holy One Blessed Be He throws at me in my personal journey!

Chag Hanukah Sameach l’Kol Am Yisrael [Happy Hanukah to all the People of Israel]!

Filtzgova Tova bat Avraham

Filtzgova Tova bat Avraham from Voronezh, Russia (Subbotnik Jew)

I grew up in the 1960’s in a small village in Russia that had a very strong Jewish community. We were different from other rural communities in that we were particularly cohesive, always doing acts of loving kindness, as one would with close family.

As a child, when I was five or six-years-old, I went with the adults to public prayers, where they prayed in the holy tongue of Hebrew. It gave me a sense of belonging to a deep secret…and I wanted to discover more for myself. It continued when we children peeked into the prayer book and wondered what was the nature of the letters that were written there. Or when the adults would take out the Torah in synagogue and our grandmothers would bring us close to kiss it. Or when we asked what was the meaning of the mezuzot, which were on the doorframes of every house, and the adults would answer that there is something, or someone, that protects our house in the middle of the night. All these are images that will stay in my memory forever.

Keeping the traditions was not easy when the state tried to “educate” us in the spirit of communism. In those difficult days, our grandparents tried to protect our future through prayers to G-d.

One of the holidays we were able to celebrate was Passover, which was great fun. All of our extended family, which was not small – 15 or 20 people – would gather to bake the matza ourselves. The production line was almost industrial – we set up shop in a special house and people worked in shifts. The children were given an important job – we would use gears from old clocks to make the holes in the dough. These preparations were like a holiday in itself.

The most delicious holiday was, of course, Shabbat. The wonderful taste of the food we prepared is unforgettable.

When the Communist regime, and the long years of trying to instill in us the ideas of Marx and Lenin, fell at last, it was the flame of pure faith, which our grandparents bestowed upon us from childhood, that saved us and helped us keep going, even as society around us was disintegrating.

In the early 1990’s, the Jewish community in Voronezh would drive every Sunday the 200 kilometers to our village to help us rebuild the foundations of Jewish life. They would teach us to read and write in Hebrew. It was simply wonderful.

Slowly, we started to run our village Sunday School, where we now instruct the younger generation on the basics of Judaism and Hebrew. This is now being done under the supervision of our rabbi, Shlomo Zelig Avrasin [Shavei Israel’s emissary to Russia].

When I think about my first memories of Hanukah, they are also from childhood. We were making a menorah out of fresh potatoes, into which we would put wax candles. Afterward, it was especially wonderful to sit at home, in the freezing winter evenings, and look at the Hanukah candles, while listening to the crackle of the wood in the fireplace. We felt we were in the midst of a true miracle, bringing light into the darkness.

Later, as adults, we had a real menorah for Hanukah, not one made of potatoes, with a kosher set of candles. We celebrated together with the Jews of Voronezh. The holiday was warm and delicious. This tradition continues now every year.

This week we will again celebrate Hanukkah in high spirits. We will converge around the table – everyone, children and adults – and enjoy the lights of the menorah. And certainly, we will make sufganiyot [Hanukah fried donuts], latkes [potato pancakes], and other delicious foods.

Happy Hanukah!