The holiday of Hanukkah falls on the darkest time of the year. Jews worldwide light a candle on the first night, and add another one on every evening of the eight-day holiday, so that by the last night the Menorah or Hanukkiya is ablaze with a host of flames.
One of the customs of the holiday is to spread the light, placing Hanukkah candles where many can see them. Lots of families place Hanukkiyot on the windowsill, and many communities across the world light Hanukkyiot in public places. Be it near the White House in Washington, DC, or in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Jewish communities worldwide feel safe and proud to publicly observe the tradition.
The Jewish community in Ukraine also lights Hanukkah candles in public locations. For the second year in a row, the Conservative/Masorti community has been celebrating the Holiday of Light by lighting candles on a large Hanukkiya placed in one of the main squares of Ukraine’s capital, Kontraktova Square in the historic district of Podyl. This year, the Hanukkiya was attacked by vandals who drew a swastika on it on the very first night of the holiday, splattered a red liquid resembling blood on the 6th night and took down the leaflets explaining the meaning and traditions of the holiday in the meantime.
The incidents were immediately condemned by the mayor of Kiev Vitali Klitschko, who said that his city is a European capital, where “acts of xenophobia and intolerance have no place”. The police are investigating the events. The Hanukiya was lit again on Tuesday night, the last night of the holiday, with no incident.
Ukrainian, Russian and Israeli press immediately provided coverage, yet they missed the real story.
The real story is the day-to-day work of the traditional community in Kiev, led by Rabbi Reuven and Lena Stamov. Originally from Ukraine, they have both studied in Israel, where Rabbi Stamov was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem. After coming back and settling down in Kiev in 2012 they have built the community from scratch, offering Shabbat and holiday services, guiding families through lifecycle events, providing educational activities for the whole family and running the Ramah family camp. The community they lead numbers over 250 people of all ages who see value in learning about their Jewish roots and just enjoy spending time together, be it at Kabbalat Shabbat or a holiday celebration, a lecture, a cooking class, or a parenting circle. For Kiev Jews, the community led by Rabbi Reuven and Lena Stamov offers a welcoming space, a sense of normalcy, and an opportunity to grow and explore one’s identity.
This is the real story, and in its spirit, despite the incidents, Rabbi Reuven Stamov lit the Hanukkiya on every night of the holiday. He was joined by Ukrainian Jews from cities other than Kiev who travelled to the capital on the last night of Hanukkah to express solidarity with the community. Hopefully, it is this image of Hanukkah 2017 in Kiev that will be remembered: men and women, young and old, braving the weather and the darkness, resolute in their commitment to live as Jews, who gathered to celebrate and support each other around the ancient symbol of hope, spreading light with its lively flames.
Anya Zhuravel Segal is Director of Development at The Schechter Institutes, Inc. based in Jerusalem.
This article also appeared on the Times of Israel website on December 25, 2017.