Community comes together for menorah lighting and ceremony on Kogan Plaza.
A crowd gathered on Kogan Plaza Monday evening in celebration of the sixth night of Chanukah, joining President Steven Knapp and members of the George Washington University community in lighting a towering menorah and enjoying the latkes and doughnuts that have become significant foods of the eight-day Jewish holiday.
Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple after the Jewish struggle for religious freedom from the Syrian Greeks in the second century BCE, but the ceremony that evening focused on the significance of Chanukah in the modern day.
“What is the message and the lesson of Chanukah for you?” was the question posed to the audience by Rabbi Yudi Steiner, director of Chabad GW. Chanukah is a tale of religious freedom from an oppressor, but, as he explained, Americans are afforded freedom. Who, he asked, is preventing any American from practicing his or her religion?
“I would argue that the Syrian Greeks of today are apathy and neglect,” Rabbi Steiner said. Using as his example the lighting of the menorah each night, the symbol of the miracle that oil lasted eight nights instead of one for the Jews trying to rebuild, Rabbi Steiner offered a solution.
“You can slowly add a little bit more light, a little bit more spirituality, meaning, purpose, and ultimately isn’t that what we’re all seeking?” he asked. “By the time you’re done, apathy, neglect, the cold frigid night gets worn away, and instead we have inspiration. We have direction. You have meaning. You have life’s purpose. And that, of course, is the message of Chanukah.”
Sophomore Conner Taylor, student president of Chabad GW, looked beyond the symbol of the menorah to speak about the holiday’s significance as representing a moment when a community gathered around its devotion to its beliefs. He implored the audience to consider the light of the candles as a metaphoric illumination, as an ability to enact positive change.
“How can you bring light here, to our community?” Mr. Taylor asked. “How can you when you leave Kogan Plaza tonight bring light to Foggy Bottom, to D.C. or to the world?”
After a hearty “chag sameach” (happy holiday in Hebrew), Dr. Knapp made a connection between religious and academic freedoms, remarking that this celebration now aptly takes place at the steps of the campus library and adding that the religious freedoms promoted by the university’s namesake George Washington paved the way for the academic freedoms enjoyed on campus.
“So this celebration of Chanukah is a celebration of the intersection of light – enlightenment, knowledge, bringing light into the world – with freedom, both political freedom and academic freedom, which is what our university is all about,” Dr. Knapp said. “I always find this to be a particularly powerful expression of the life of our community here at the George Washington University.”
After Dr. Knapp’s remarks, Rabbi Steiner invited him to light the shamash, the ninth and central candle of the menorah. It’s a long-held tradition that Dr. Knapp light the shamash – and an appropriate one, Rabbi Steiner said, likening Dr. Knapp’s leadership to the center candle that guides the others.
Rabbi Steiner led the crowd in sung blessings as the menorah was further illuminated, and invited those gathered to enjoy refreshments in advance of remarks made by Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president and director of the Washington, D.C., office of American Friends of Lubavitch and the sponsor of Chabad GW.
Junior Liel Azoolin, a member of Chabad GW who attended the ceremony, said she is glad that the George Washington University offers a Chanukah celebration, adding that students of all faiths attend the event.
“Not every university would be able to have a giant menorah,” Ms. Azoolin said.
Rabbi Shemtov praised those who organized and those who attended the menorah lighting.
“Celebrate yourselves, because you’ve come out here to take part in a major message of freedom, of unity, of light and of the future,” Rabbi Shemtov said.