Shabbat was over; the spare, clean-lined synagogue at Dor Hadash was empty. Instead, the community gathered in the adjacent room, decorated for a party. Tinfoil runners gleamed over blue-and-white tablecloths; clusters of silver-and-blue-foil dreidels hung from the ceiling. Coffee percolated next to the sodas; canned fuel warmed the latkes at the end of a long buffet loaded with homemade food: salads (bean, green, potato, egg, etc.), pastas, vegetable casseroles, quiches, and blintzes. Desserts lined another table. Aunt Tilly the Clown painted menorahs on children’s faces.
The feast was traditional. So were many of the songs and the prayers blessing God, remembering His commandments and favors to His people. And when the women leading the Havdalah ceremony that closed Shabbat passed the cup and spices to a little girl, when they held her palm forward toward the candle flame, they were passing on that tradition — even if it was tradition adorned with more modern notions of wholeness and reintegration and the light within ourselves.
At Dor Hadash, said Yaffa-Shira Sultan, tradition was not the final word because new interpretations presented themselves. “We talk about the Torah as a living account of our heritage but not as the word of God. We tend to have a naturalist rather than a super-naturalist concept of God. It doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in God. We just have another interpretation of God in the world: the process by which salvation comes into the world is in the actions that bring Godliness. We focus on the predicate more than the pronoun.” And at the lighting of the menorah candles, she added, “when we light the candles, it is as if we are stepping forward and shining light on our own faces, on our own selves. It’s with a sense of resilience and pride that we light the Hanukkah candles.”
To explain, she said, “We have to start with the story. The original celebration of Hanukkah was associated with success in war. The Maccabees came into Jerusalem and fought the Greeks. They managed to reclaim the temple and rededicate it. It was both a military victory and an expression of the Jews’ freedom to practice their religion publicly — because the Greek king was commanding that they had to follow the religion of the Greek kingdom.” She went on to note that the miracle of the oil memorialized by the menorah was not introduced until after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. “The rabbis of the Biblical period said, ‘We have to bring this holiday back because we need what happened with the Maccabees to happen again so that we can rebuild the temple in our day and age.’ They put together a story around the Ner Tamid — a light that should burn constantly, symbolizing that God is everywhere, within us for all time, about us, in the face of our loved ones. The miracle was that the oil lasted longer than it was supposed to.... There is another miracle here, the miracle of resilience.”
At the end of her talk, she added, “It’s interesting to think about modern-day Israel and the complexities of the celebration of returning to the temple in Hanukkah. What we’re doing here today is focusing on dedicating sacredness wherever we are — wherever we’re sharing a connection with others.”
As we ate, Sultan spoke to me about the holiday’s significance. “I like to think of it as a celebration of our people and our perseverance. But when you look at it from a larger historical context — the Hasmoneans” — who retook the temple from the Greeks — “ruled after that point, and they weren’t so great at ruling, either. There are parts of the story that have real, contemporary meaning for us — that are inspiring. We are bringing light into dark places.... But there’s also...” She paused. “There’s the tendency to fight for freedom, but then...we have to be careful to make sure that we don’t unconsciously create other tyrannies. Freedom is the first step. Then we have to act Godly.”
After dinner, there was more singing: “This little light of mine/ I’m gonna let it shine...”
What happens when we die?
“I think a lot of Jews today are uncomfortable with the idea of something so final [as death].... I might simply give you a blanket statement: ‘We live on in the memories of our loved ones. Where I was once a dream of my parents before I was born, they become a dream to me when they die.’” — Matthew Lickona
4858 Ronson Court, Kearny Mesa
Denomination: Jewish Reconstructionist Movement
Founded locally: 1983
Senior pastor: Rabbi Yaffa-Shira Sultan
Congregation size: 150 families
Staff size: 3
Hebrew school enrollment: 60
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: membership dues
Dress: casual to semiformal
Sabbath worship: Weekly Erev Shabbat service, 7:30 p.m., except first Friday at 7 p.m.; Family service, third Friday, 6:30 p.m.; see calendar for Saturday services
Length of reviewed service: 2 hours