The New Faces of Chanukah: Meet Eight Leaders Striving to #BeTheLight

By Sara Ivry

This article is featured in the December edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist.

Want to share your story? Tell us how you plan to make a difference this Chanukah using #BeTheLight

Erin Schrode - New York, NY

Just 24 years old, California native Erin Schrode is fearless. Earlier this year, she was so moved by stories of Syrians fleeing war and wreckage in their homeland that she grabbed a friend, applied her frequent flier miles and headed to the north coast of the Greek island Lesbos to see how she could help out on her own as a “quasi-renegade,” since no relief agencies were taking volunteers.

“What struck me most is what would it take for me to pick up and leave everything I know, everything I have that’s familiar behind and get in a boat,” she said. She distributed sneakers and dry clothes, and “I just hugged them–I recognized human dignity, our shared values and humanity.”

She headed to the region again right before Thanksgiving, proving that Schrode is nothing if not an impassioned missionary for the causes she believes in—squeezing in volunteerism and humanitarian relief amid an already hectic schedule as a long-time champion of living an eco-friendly life.

“I live a green life 24-7, 365,” she explained on the phone while visiting California, where she grew up. In 2005, she co-founded Turning Green, a non-profit devoted to living an eco-friendly life, with her mother. She sees holidays like Chanukah as a perfect opportunity to awaken consciousness about the ways to honor the environment during seasonal celebrations. Specifically, that means eating fair trade chocolate gelt and vegan latkes, using newspapers to wrap presents, lighting beeswax candles with organic cotton wicks in hanukkiahs made with spools and nuts you likely already have in your house—and most importantly, doing a mitzvah a day for the duration of the holiday.

“Simchas and holidays are a new opportunity for me to figure out how to do better by people and the planet,” she said. “Chanukah is so perfect: it’s eight days, eight simple steps. It’s a time when you’re already doing something new, you’re already introducing something, why not make that as green as can be?”

This year, Schrode’s adding a little something more to her celebration. She’s bringing together a group of Jewish and non-Jewish friends for “Women in the Kitchen, Hanukkah Edition,” that hearkens to her most treasured childhood memories of her grandmother, mother and aunts cooking the same things every year. The women will enjoy tri-colore latkes, apple sauce from local produce, cashew sour cream, biodynamic wine and other delights. They’ll light the candles, sing Chanukah songs and generally have a ball.

“I love community and that is a tenet of my relationship to my faith,” she said. Moreover, “I can’t do anything without infusing it with green. It’s physically impossible to me…For me to get to tell people this is how a green girl celebrates Chanukah but you can adapt any of into your own life”—that’s what she hopes will be one sweet take-away of the Festival of Lights.

S. Bear Bergman - Toronto, Canada

Writer, storyteller, publisher and Bitch magazine advice columnist S. Bear Bergman was hanging around one day with his husband J. Wallace Skelton and their friend Jen Goldberg. The three were complaining, though mildly, about Chanukah and the upcoming onslaught of gifts for the kids that’ll accompany the latkes and the mayhem.

“We spend half our time keeping the presents contained,” he said. “It’s too much for any kid to appreciate and, frankly, it’s too much to fit in the house.“

The trio started thinking about what they could do with the glut of toys that many families are fortunate enough to endure. They considered encouraging their children to give a gift or two for the needy, but asking a child to choose which new box of MagnaTiles to part with is, as any parent knows, a fool’s errand. Instead, they alit upon the idea of co-hosting a Chanukah party on the holiday’s final night and asking attendees to forego their eighth gifts and instead give the money they would have spent on presents to charity.

Called Donate the 8th, the party came together with help from a Schusterman Family Philanthropies micro grant and will take place in their hometown of Toronto.

“We’re inviting a whole bunch of LGBTQ families and allies and we’ll make the charity SOY, Supporting Our Youth, a Toronto organization that provides a variety of different youth empowerment programs for lesbian, gay, bi and trans youth,” he said.

“One of the things we’ll take the opportunity to do at the party is talk to the kids about tzedakah and about wanting to give something to people who need it more than you,” he said. “It’s a better use of the same 20 dollars than another Lego set.”

Bergman and his husband talk about tzedakah a lot with their five and a half year old son, Stanley, whose school is sponsoring a family of Syrian refugees and has raised nearly $30,000 on their behalf—that’s in addition to getting them furniture, clothes and other necessities for a new life in a new place. With their stepdaughter Morgan, 20, the family delivers food to children in need at holiday time.

Tzedakah is a family affair.

“If you ask Stanley what’s our big household rule, he’ll say ‘Look out for anyone who’s littler than you,’” Bergman said. “Hanukkah gives us another opportunity to say, ‘We’ve got a lot, let’s give something.’”

Bergman and his co-hosts are already thinking about how to improve the experience for next year. They’re planning a downloadable kit for people who want to host similar Donate the 8th events for their communities. It’ll include suggestions of charities, talking points on how to talk about tzedakah, suggestions of how to make the party fun, and more.

“The giving to charity is important, but it’s the ‘L’dor va dor’—the generation to generation—part that we’re most focused on.”

Ariela Lijavetsky - Buenos Aires, Argentina

In Buenos Aires, where the Jewish community suffered two major assaults in the early 90s, celebrating Chanukah is not as simple or ubiquitous as it is in Israel, or even New York. The Jewish community there is the biggest in Latin America and continues to thrive, but on the other hand it is “very, very divided, fragmented,” according to Ariela Lijavetzky, an educator who now directs non-formal education at Macabi Buenos Aires, one of the local sports, cultural and social centers from the Maccabi World Union (MWU). “There are different points of view, different ways of working.”

The lingering scabs from the bombings at the Israeli embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1992 and 1994, respectively, have created a climate in which it’s not so easy to be a Jew. Given that circumstance, it’s important, says Lijavetzky, to figure out ways of reaching out to the younger generation to get them invested in building a future for themselves as Jews in the country.

“We must light the flame inside them now that they are young and they have their own hopes,” said Lijavetzky. “It’s important for them to talk and to imagine what kind of Jewish community they want for the future, and to imagine themselves being the leaders of this Jewish community.”

This year, Lijavetzky is hoping to accomplish that by organizing a program for the sixth night of Chanukah that will bring together 40 Jews in their 20s who work in Jewish education at four different organizations: Macabi, Hebraica, Hacoaj and Cissab, which are all part of the MWU. They’ll discuss the challenges they face as community leaders. In addition to lighting the menorah, the evening will feature a motivational speaker and breakout discussion groups of five or six people to talk about specific issues that arise for young Jewish professionals.

One, Lijavetzky said, is forging bonds with other populations and not remaining a community in isolation.

“Of course, we are a minority in Argentina,” she explained, “and there are other minorities—the Armenian community, the Muslim community—there are different groups that we would like to have better relationships with and to work together at least to start things for a better country, and for respect and coexistence, to be a model for a better world.”

The Chanukah program will take place, fittingly, at a “fashion pub” for the younger set.

“As you know, the main characters of the story of Chanukah are the family of the Maccabees, so these festivities really are very important for us,” she said. “It’s part of our blood. It’s what we are. We not only work for culture and social and Jewish education, we work to demonstrate the importance of the fight in an ideological way—not about violence, but fighting with words. That’s the Macabi spirit.”

“We have to fight for what we think is best for our community, for our country, for people in general around us.”

Erin Zaikis - New York, NY

For Erin Zaikis, “Chanukah wasn’t about light, it was about miracles and the fact that miracles can happen when you least expect them every day for ordinary people.” As the brains behind Sundara, a non-profit working in India, Myanmar and Uganda to make hand soap more widely available, Zaikis should know. She’s making miracles happen for others—not only by helping fight hygiene-related illnesses, but by creating job opportunities along the way.

Two years ago, Zaikis was doing advocacy and social work in schools in Thailand, not far from the Myanmar border, when she got fed up by finding washrooms totally devoid of hand soap. She asked students she was working with what was going on and was shocked by the response.

“I was kind of pantomiming handwashing, and asked ‘What do you use to take a shower?’” she recalled saying to the kids. “What do your parents wash the dishes with? They were dumbfounded. I thought they might not understand me so I went to collect soap at a convenience store and I brought it back to them—130 bars—and I conducted this impromptu handwashing session, but before that they were scratching it, hitting it on their heads. They didn’t know what to do with it.”

It’s hard for many people, especially in the germ-phobic developed world, to imagine never having seen a bar of soap, let alone not knowing how to use it. The knowledge gap gave Zaikis a big idea—to repurpose soap from local hotels for distribution among the needy. Her plan would fill a little-discussed hole in public health programs that focus on ensuring clean water. She got buy-in from big hotel chains like Hyatt and Hilton and from smaller boutiques. Her plan would apply lessons of both sustainability and empowerment: she enlisted local women to collect bars of soap that hotels would otherwise have thrown into landfill. As it is, she says, hotels in the United States are responsible for throwing more than one billion bars of soap into landfills each year.

Through Sundara, a dozen underprivileged, local female employees collect soap bars that then get treated so they may be used again.

“The women become hygiene ambassadors,” Zaikis said. “One of the aspects of Sundara that I’m proudest of is that we’re providing employment to people who otherwise wouldn’t have a way to make a living. It’s such a meaningful thing to hear someone say, ‘Because of you I have a job. Because of you I can send my kids to school.’”

Zaikis is mindful of the challenges and threats—rape, discrimination, assault among them—that women face in the countries where Sundara operates. For her, helping disadvantaged women empower themselves is as important a goal as making sure that she’s helping promote hygiene.

She was just in India during Diwali, a sort of Indian Festival of Lights that also celebrates the victory of good over evil. At a workshop, coworkers each offered a few words of reflection.

“One woman said she was actually offered a higher paying job, but she chose to stay in this job, at Sundara, because when she distributes the soap, she feels she’s helping the community and that’s not something you can get even with a raise,” Zaikis recalled. That Sundara “has succeeded and grown so much is a miracle and it’s not because of hard work, but hard work plus a lot of luck. Appreciate the luck when you have it, all the time.”

Moshe Madoi - Kampala, Uganda

If you’re one of 2,500 Jews in a country with a population of 35 million people, it stands to reason you look for opportunities to come together with your community to remember that you’re not alone. For the Abayudaya, a Jewish sect in Uganda, that means getting together for holidays.

Moshe Madoi, a 28-year old teacher, shochet (kosher slaughterer), and farmer, was raised Abayudaya. He is the fourth generation in his family to be a part of that community, which like any faith community includes secular and religious individuals—though regardless of denomination, he said, Jews in Uganda observe the laws of kashrut, the Sabbath and purity.

For him, Chanukah is an opportune occasion for members of the Abayudaya to come together, since the holiday typically falls during vacations from school and work.

Chanukah, he wrote in an email, “is an opportunity to bring together the people and to learn and celebrate the festival together with everyone so as to build a strong bond of brotherhood and to make a strong Jewish community in our country.”

It’s not “Just a festival of light, but a time to bring together our ideas of how to lighten the spirit of Judaism into our people.”

So, with the help of a micro-grant from Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Madoi decided to put together a community Chanukah celebration this year. Called CHANUKAT ABAYUDAYA, it will span three days during which roughly 100 people will light candles together, engage in communal prayer, undertake Torah study, listen to retellings of the Chanukah story and generally have a good time building friendships and community.

For Madoi, this is both a communal and personal project.

“By celebrating the holiday, I feel very good that I am keeping God’s commandments, and have a sense that I belong to the Jewish people and to Israel at large,” he said.

Michelle Citrin - Brooklyn, NY

Ask most people for their go-to favorite Chanukah song and they’ll likely start singing the one by Adam Sandler. With “Hanukkah Lovin’,” Brooklyn-based musician Michelle Citrin is fixing to change that.

“I grew up loving listening to Christmas music because I thought it was so appropriate for the seasons—the cold, the warmth on the inside while the outside is cold,” she said to explain the intimate, jazz-lounge vibe her song evokes. “I always dreamed of having Chanukah music that emulated that warmth. So my partner Molly Kane and I put together ‘Hanukkah Lovin'.' There’s a space that needed to be filled, to create that soundtrack and it stemmed from wanting a warm repertoire.”

The song met a need many holiday celebrants didn’t know they had; Citrin has gotten positive responses from listeners and contacted a radio promoter who helped make sure the song is included on holiday playlists around the country this year.

“DJs are so thankful to us to have more options and not just to have Christmas music,” she said. “I give sheet music to other performers so they can sing it. The video is performed on social media. It’s just a joy.”

That joy, specifically of music, is something she learned as a small child from her grandmother, a Romanian Holocaust survivor who introduced Citrin to the piano. The first song she learned from her grandmother was “Chag Purim,” a holiday tune.

“Music and humor have been her source of strength to survive, to live, to continue,” Citrin said of her grandmother, now 95. “My grandparents share that and they instill that in our family and holidays are always joyous. It has always been about music. It’s very celebratory. Somebody singing, somebody dancing. And I want to share that celebration through these kinds of projects, through video. Through song. I think there’s still room to create more content for our people. “

This Chanukah, Citrin has a special reason to celebrate—she has just released her first full-length album. “Left Brained Right Hearted” contains ten songs and draws in part from the teachings of Rabbi Hillel and from time Citrin spent in Israel. In addition to promoting the album, Citrin is adding some Chanukah-related elements to a regular program she leads called Eat Pray Sing, which typically is a Shabbat-anchored community celebration.

"Taking the old and making it new and holy. It's all a deep connection to our roots."

Nathan Landay - Los Angeles, CA

Though Chanukah is a time when families come together to celebrate, it’s also a time for established communities to come together and invite new members into the fold. That’s the approach that Challah for Hunger is taking. The 11-year old organization has chapters on college campuses across the country—now 80 of them—through which volunteers bake and sell challah. They then then donate the proceeds to nonprofits fighting hunger and working toward food security in the United States and Israel.

This year, on the fifth night of Chanukah, the group will team up in Los Angeles with Challah Hub, a social media and bread-baking initiative run by two challah-gaga young women who teach challah-making skills all over the city.

“We saw a fun way to engage young adults—music, wine, challah, it’s a social thing with other young professionals and an opportunity to introduce people to our organization,” explained Nathan Landay, Challah for Hunger’s Los Angeles Program Associate. Landay first got involved with Challah for Hunger as an undergraduate at Occidental College—where he founded a chapter after having learned of the organization while visiting colleges during high school—and was immediately was taken by the organization’s combined foci on baking, tikkun olam and fostering of Jewish community.

“There are lots of solemn holidays in Judaism. Chanukah is not one of them,” he said. “Chanukah being one of the more celebratory holidays, I feel that there is the mental space to say, ‘we’re celebrating and also giving back,’ and to find creative space where we can have a conversation about social justice.”

Amy Kritzer - Austin, TX

If taking the plunge and utterly changing careers takes courage, Amy Kritzer has courage in droves. In 2009, she was working in New York City as a conference producer for marketing themed events when the recession hit. Looking for a change of scenery, Kritzer pulled up stakes and moved to Austin, a place she had previously visited just once.

“Everyone’s is so nice,” she said, with a wink in her voice. “And it’s warm.”

In Texas, she got a job with a consultancy but was increasingly aware of a desire to scratch a lifelong creative itch. As a child, she had made and sold jewelry in elementary school. Once she got to college, her creative outlet turned more toward food. She hosted dinner parties. At Passover, she made seders for friends. She found she liked making things to share communally.

Kritzer started reading food blogs in her spare time—and before long, she realized she wanted her own, and she wanted to work on it full-time. So, she took down her corporate shingle and put one up about Jewish food. The result is, a fun, easy-to-use, inviting site that includes blog posts about Jewish food and recipes inspired by her Bubbe.

“When I first started blogging, I didn’t know how to see how many people were reading it. I thought it was maybe just my mom. But after a few months, I got an email from a girl who was half-Jewish and she started to make recipes from my blog to connect to her mother’s side, she wrote about how she felt a Jewish connection for the first time and that was the email that showed me that was maybe more than just food—maybe I’m on to something,” she said.

“A lot of Jewish organizations are trying to appeal to younger people who aren’t going to synagogue or keeping kosher,” she went on. “And food is a great way to unite Jews and non-Jews. They probably had bagels on Sundays and their grandmother’s matzo ball soup and that’s an emotional tie.”

Chanukah presents its own culinary opportunities, Kritzer said, and its own opportunity for Jews and non-Jews to come together and take part in celebrations. Her site includes pages of recipes for the holiday: latkes, sufganiyot (doughnuts), and brisket, not exactly everyone’s first go-to food for Chanukah.

“I tend to think of Chanukah as having indulgent food: deep-fried foods, latkes, doughnuts. For me brisket is an indulgent food—you don’t eat it every day, you don’t just whip it up on a Tuesday, so it’s the perfect holiday food as well.”

Meantime, Kritzer’s got a plate full of projects. In addition the blog, she has a dessert/sweets cookbook coming out in the summer; she teaches cooking classes and doing events with Jewish organizations; and is busy right now preparing some new Hanukkah delights, including a chopped liver doughnut, a s’mores latke and a latke pizza.

“I love inviting my Jewish and non-Jewish friends to come together and celebrate. You light the menorah. We play the dreidel game. It’s the community aspect,” she said. “And of course the food.”