There is much that accounts for the revitalization of Hanukkah in the United States. A so-called “minor festival”—when measured against, say, Passover or other biblically-ordained holidays—Hanukkah has cornered the market on Jewish holiday merchandise, synagogue school cantatas, and YouTube song playlists. Most of all, it has emerged as a holiday that arrests the attention of young people, awakening them to creative and energetic possibilities of Jewish expression. This did not begin with the Maccabeats and their acapella hits.
In October 1879, a group of young Jews met in Philadelphia to establish Keyam Dishmaya. The name draws from an Aramaic term, symbolizing their role as guardians of heaven. Most of them in their twenties, this band of spirited youth hailing from Philadelphia and New York included leading lights such as Solomon Solis-Cohen and Cyrus Sulzberger. The goal was to leverage scholarship and tradition to revitalize Jewish life and culture in the United States. Hanukkah was a major component of the group’s activities. As my teacher, historian Jonathan Sarna, has keenly pointed out, just two months after Keyam Dishmaya formed, members of the group held a “Grand Revival of the Jewish National Holiday of Chanucka.” The history of Hanukkah inspired them: with themes that empower minority groups, encourage deep pride in traditions, and stakeholdership in a storied homeland.
Youth was at its core the catalyst for this Hanukkah movement. Revivals in American Jewish life are most often sparked by young people. In line with broader cultural and political change regimes in U.S. history, we often look for youth-led spirits to augur positive outcomes and illuminate a path through darkened spaces.
This also captures Gratz College’s theory of change. Many of our graduate-level students are at the beginning or in the middle of their career, motivated to harness their skills as educators, scholars, and field leaders. More than that, though, our community is committed to education as a tool to animate youngsters. In the classroom, boardrooms or on campgrounds, our Gratz community makes good use of this American vision of Hanukkah, to focus the rays of our lights through the eyes of young people and the young-at-heart.
We celebrate Hanukkah and this holiday season amid a myriad of questions about our global health and economy. The questions are much easier to identify than the answers. If history is an indicator, young people will play a vital role in developing the solutions. In that case, the Gratz community is very much a part of our collective future.