Dedicated to our Potential

In 1966, Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa as the first specifically African-American holiday. Dr. Karenga said his goal was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” The holiday, observed December 26 - January 1 each year features activities such as lighting a candle holder with seven candles and culminates in a feast and gift giving.

The candle-lighting ceremony provides the opportunity to gather and discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa. Each night, one of seven principles is emphasized. These principles include:

Unity – to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race

Self-Determination – to define ourselves, name ourselves, create ourselves, and speak for ourselves

Collective Work and Responsibility – to build and to maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together

Cooperative Economics – to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together

Purpose – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to

Creativity – To do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it

Faith – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle

I appreciate Dr. Karenga’s thinking and his effort to further empower the African-American community. Many of the above principles are certainly appropriate for the Jewish community, as well.

As a child and now as a parent, lighting the menorah is always a special time. Each night we add more candles, recite the blessings, and, of course, race to open presents. Yet, looking at the holiday of Kwanzaa and the meaning behind each candle, I thought that perhaps this year my family would do something similar. So, as I like to do, I asked my children for any ideas. They decided that each night we will assign an important Jewish value to each candle. Their initial ideas included: Jewish education (a quick aside – mazel tov to the Portland Jewish Academy on its 50th Anniversary and the Zidell Family for being honored), Israel, Torah, tikkun olam, tzedakah, and family to name a few. I look forward to hearing what they come up with each night.

But one thing they both agreed upon is that the shamash (the candle used to light the other candles) represents each of us as individuals. They feel that we have the opportunity and power “to light” our inner self, as well as inspire other people, our community, and the world. They believe, and I agree, we ALL make a difference!

In Jewish tradition, we often talk about two schools of thought – the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. In almost every case Hillel’s view prevailed, including in how we light the Chanukah menorah.

Hillel stated we should add one candle for each night of Chanukah until the menorah is full on the 8th night. His thinking centered on the idea that we should only light enough candles based on “what is” (what number night of Chanukah it actually is). The other thought leader, Shammai, felt differently. He believed that on the first night of Chanukah we should light all eight candles and reduce the number each evening. His thinking was that on the first night we actually have the potential for eight nights (the second night we have the potential for seven, etc). His outlook was much more forward thinking. Although we do not follow Shammai’s teaching on this issue, I actually agree with him.

Chanukah means “dedication.” Therefore, next week when we begin the Chanukah celebration, let’s not focus on “what is” – let’s dedicate ourselves to reaching the true potential of our Jewish community.

Shabbat shalom and an early best wishes for a Happy Chanukah,


PS – Mazel tov to Scott Shleifer, son of Stuart and Susan Shleifer, who just received the UJA-Federation of New York Wall Street Division Young Leadership Award. This is an enormous honor! In his speech, he talked about the challenge of explaining to people “the why” of giving to an umbrella organization (Federation). Here is what he said:

In Wall Street speak, Federation is a fund of funds for Jewish philanthropy. They have a dedicated team of people responsible for completing due diligence on current and prospective charities.  After careful consideration they donate to the most worthy causes they believe will deliver the biggest impact.  For the many people without a community to rely on, Federation offers support and resources. It takes real leadership to build a community that cares. And I’m proud that the Wall Street Division has a long tradition of not only donating money, but also bringing in others and encouraging them to be active. 

Our Federation, too, has a long history – and an even more exciting future – with your support!



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