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How I’m thinking about Hanukkah when Israel is at war — and campus tensions are high

(JTA) — Last summer, I became a chaplain at Brown University, a campus at which a celebration of the uniqueness of every student is embedded in our culture, where we pride ourselves on bringing students together in creative and unexpected ways.

That means this is my first Hanukkah on campus. And what a time: Two months after the darkest day in contemporary Jewish history, some Jewish students are feeling singled out for publicly supporting Israel’s military action in Gaza. Some are feeling unwelcome in institutional Jewish spaces because they do not identify with the word “Zionist.” Some Jewish and Arab students have shared that they have felt as if they were tiptoeing, seeking to find peers with whom they could mourn for all people in Israel-Palestine who have been assaulted or murdered and express horror at the trauma that is ongoing.

Many students have described strains in relationships with people with whom they disagree. Some students have shared their discomfort walking on campus in clothing that is associated with Palestinian or Jewish culture, and some students have expressed concern or disappointment about how staff, faculty, administrators and other stakeholders have used their power, platforms or resources. 

Now, as we light the first candle, students with family or friends serving in the IDF may feel connected to the military themes of the holiday like never before. And other students may struggle to find light, as they show up hand in hand with their Israeli and Palestinian families and friends trying to find light of their own.

When I reflect on productive discomfort, a concept I learned from Ruth Messinger, one of this generation’s great Jewish lights, I notice that I, like many of us, often find myself in a conversation in which the discomfort no longer feels so productive. It is tempting to put up a boundary or just walk away. What I have been sharing with my students is that when I feel myself hitting a wall or wanting to walk away, I try to push myself to ask one more question, and then to do my best to listen to their answer with an open heart.

How I teach Hanukkah to a 3-year-old — perhaps toppling a dozen blocks that I have built to represent the Second Temple — is different from how I teach it to adults, perhaps analyzing the context of Jewish farmers living in the land of Israel grappling with the Greek empire’s focus on the polis

There have been multiple layers of the Hanukkah story. The Talmud acknowledges Hanukkah’s military victory but uses the Hebrew word nes, miracle, to describe the small amount of oil lasting seven days longer than expected — transforming a national holiday marking a military victory into a Jewish holiday celebrating the triumph of faith. Prayers in the synagogue service and the blessing after meals expand the language of miracles into redemption and heroism, salvation, military might and comfort — a lofty list, all of which hold contemporary resonance.

Some 800 years ago, Maimonides taught that if we have not lit Hanukkah candles of our own yet see someone else’s Hanukkah candles, we still say the blessing “she’asah nissim,” giving thanks for the miracles wrought for our ancestors in days of old at this time. We are not only invited to publicize the miracle in each generation by making our hanukkiyot visible from the street, but perhaps saying a blessing when we see someone else’s candles helps shape the holiday for each person, in each generation. In the United States, a seemingly minor holiday took on new meaning in the gift-giving season of Christmas; in Israel, the ancient military narrative of the few against the many was familiar once again in 1948.

The more I learn about the historical Hanukkah of 2,200 years ago, the less I imagine it as a struggle between “us” and “them,” between “Brave Judah the Maccabee” and “Bad King Antiochus.” The “outsiders” in this story were mostly other Jews against whom the Maccabees were fighting in a civil war. Although our prayers associate the Maccabees with a victorious Hasmonean dynasty, the leadership they established would be associated with power consolidation and corruption within just a few generations; Rabbi Daniel Levine has noted that, with hindsight, rabbinic tradition minimizes the role of the Maccabees. So, what does “winning” really mean in the long term when binaries begin to break down, when “us vs. them” is not a sufficient description?

Unlike its parallel holiday of Purim a few months later, there is no requirement to tell the story of Hanukkah word by word the way that the public reading of the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther is part of many people’s Purim practices. No hearing the shofar. No telling the story of the Exodus.

But even though there is no “requirement” to tell the Hanukkah story, I hope we remember that flames are symbols of the human soul, and that as we increase the light each night, we find opportunities not only to tell our Hanukkah stories but to hear the stories of other people as well. We might start by reconnecting with someone with whom we have lost touch, but we should also make an effort to hear the story of someone with whom we might disagree so strongly that it feels easier simply not to listen to their story at all. Easier is not always better, nor does it necessarily bring an enduring solution.

This week our students will gather around campus with their friends, light the menorah, eat foods fried in oil and tell Hanukkah stories on their own terms, stories that some may have learned in preschool and some they are starting to encounter for the first time as Jewish young adults.

My wishes for all of us this Hanukkah 5784 are opportunities to connect with others in ways that are creative and challenging, in ways that surprise us, and in ways that center our ongoing senses of curiosity and wonder in this season of light — may it increase beyond these eight nights.

The post How I’m thinking about Hanukkah when Israel is at war — and campus tensions are high appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Brown University Investigating Threats of Violence Sent to Hillel Officials

More than 200 Brown University students gathered outside University Hall where roughly 40 students sat inside demanding the school divest from weapons manufacturers amid the Israel-Hamas war. Photo: Amy Russo / USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect

Two officials of Brown-RISD Hillel, a Jewish life  center serving both Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, were sent “violent threats” early Sunday morning, according to a report by The Brown Daily Herald.

After being alerted of threats, which were sent via email, the university’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) conducted a search of Brown-RISD Hillel and determined there is “no evidence of any one-site threat.” DPS vice president Rodney Chatman told The Brown Daily Herald that “local, state, and federal authorities” are investigating the incident.

“This comes at an especially difficult time of distress on our campuses,” Brown University president Christina H. Paxson said in a statement addressing the incident. “Our students, faculty, and staff continue to grapple with the deaths of Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the wake of the October 7 attacks, as well as a despicable act of violence against a member of the Brown community here in the United States last November, and increases in reports of antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate.”

In Sunday’s statement President Paxson said that “robust” security measures will be implemented to protect Brown-RISD Hillel, as well as the officials who were threatened, from harm.

The incident is not the first antisemitic act of hatred since Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

In December, the university’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity opened an investigation into an incident in which someone slipped a threatening note underneath the door of an off-campus apartment rented by Jewish students.

“Those who live for death will die by their own hand,” said the note, which, according to the Brown Daily Herald, matches lyrics from a song by an early 1980s punk band. The paper added that the note was found by an electrician, who brought it inside.

A similar incident occurred last November at a Brown-RISD Hillel. Additionally, in 2020, a swastika was graffitied in Brown’s Hegeman Hall. In 2017, another was found in a gender-neutral bathroom at RISD. It was drawn using human feces, according to the Brown Daily Herald.

Last week, President Paxson rejected the demands of anti-Zionist students who were participating in a hunger strike in an effort to force the Brown Corporation to vote on a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) resolution against Israel and make other concessions.

The university has twice ordered the arrests of extremist anti-Zionists student protesters, who have held unauthorized demonstrations in administration buildings, sometimes occupying them for hours after being asked to leave. Over 40 were arrested in December while onlookers shouted “Shame on Brown, Shame on Brown!”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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‘Free Palestine:’ Texas Church Shooter Suspected of Having Pro-Hamas Ideology

Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36, shot a man at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, on February 12, 2024. Photo: Twitter

A woman who stormed a church in Houston, Texas, on Sunday with an AR-15 rifle and shot one person before being killed by police was apparently a Hamas supporter, according to details on the incident reported by CNN.

On Monday, the outlet reported that “Free Palestine” was written on the shooter’s rifle.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the shooter has since been identified as Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36. The woman has an extensive criminal history which includes arrests for marijuana possession, assault, theft, and forgery.

On Sunday afternoon, Moreno walked into the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas — an institution famous for being the church of charismatic Christian preacher Joel Osteen — with a child and a gun. Wearing a trench coat and a knapsack, she threatened to have explosives, according to multiple reports. Most of the worshipers in attendance were Hispanic and attending a Spanish language service.

Moreno shot one man, leaving him critically injured, and was shot and killed by Houston Police. A child was also shot during the incident, but police are still unsure of whether they or Moreno are responsible for doing it.

“I want to commend those officers. She had a long gun and it could have been a lot worse,”  Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said during a press conference later in the day.

An investigation of Moreno’s motives is ongoing.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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London Theater Facing Legal Action After Comedy Show Turns Into ‘Antisemitic Rally’

British comedian Paul Currie. Photo: Instagram

A London theater is facing legal action after an Israeli man was hounded out of a comedy show on Saturday night by a comedian performing a one-man show that turned into what some audience members compared to an “antisemitic rally.”

A spokesperson for the UK’s Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) said the group was in touch with the Israeli man and other members of the audience who fled from the theater.

“What the Jewish audience members have recounted is atrocious, and we are working with them and our lawyers to ensure that those who instigated and enabled it are held to account,” the CAA spokesperson told London’s Evening Standard news outlet. “These allegations are of deeply disturbing discriminatory abuse against Jews. Comedians are rightly given broad latitude, but hounding Jews out of theaters is reminiscent of humanity’s darkest days, and must have no place in central London in 2024.”

The comedian, Paul Currie, had been performing a one-man show entitled “Shtoom” at London’s Soho Theater. Towards the end of his performance, he retrieved a Ukrainian and Palestinian flag and invited members to stand and applaud.

After the round of applause was over, Currie pointed to a man in the second row of the theater and quizzed him over why he had not stood up.

The unnamed man, an Israeli, replied, “I enjoyed your show until you brought out the Palestinian flag.” An infuriated Currie began screaming, “Leave my show now! Get out of my f—-ing show!” in response.

As the man and his partner rose to leave, accompanied by a handful of other shocked audience members, the assembled crowd began chanting “Get out” and “Free Palestine.”

In a written complaint to the theater over his treatment, the man wrote: ” Shaken and feeling threatened by the growing antagonism, we exited and tried to complain/ get some support from the front-of-house team at the theatre, who were not very sympathetic but did give us an email address to make a complaint. By this time, the show had ended and the audience started exiting, a number of whom were glaring at us aggressively and in a very threatening way. We all left the scene.”

He added: “Our friends later received a message from someone they knew who had also been at the show, saying that after we left, the situation became even more inflamed. What had been intended to be an evening of comedy turned out to be what felt like an antisemitic rally.”

The theater eventually apologized, issuing a statement expressing regret an “an incident that took place at our venue at the end of a performance of Paul Currie: Shtoom on Saturday 10 February, which has caused upset and hurt to members of audience attending and others.” It added: “We take this very seriously and are looking into the detail of what happened as thoroughly, as sensitively, and as quickly as we can. It is important to us that Soho theatre is a welcoming and inclusive place for all.”

Currie has remained largely silent since the incident, save for a post on Instagram which quoted Mexican poet Cesar A. Cruz saying: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”  He then added: “If you were at my show last night… you’ll know.”

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