I love Hanukkah. After all, it’s the celebration of light and miracles. But this year, while I celebrate the beauty and joy of the holiday, I am also choosing to use this time to commemorate and deeply embrace the timeless courage and strength of my ancestors.
The horrific events of October 7 have penetrated me deeply and moved me to embrace my power and to remember who I am. I am a Jew. My courage and resolve to change the world is in my DNA. I am a Maccabee.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks taught: “To defend a land, you need an army. But to defend freedom, you need education. You need families and schools to ensure that your ideals are passed on to the next generation and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured. The citadels of liberty are houses of study. Its heroes are teachers, its passion is education and the life of the mind. Moses realized that a people achieves immortality not by building temples or mausoleums, but by engraving their values on the hearts of their children, and they on theirs, and so on until the end of time.”
Our sages understood this and in the century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, they established the world's first public school system. Anticipating the coming diaspora they embedded teachers in every city and region to ensure that all Jewish children could access an effective and immersive Jewish education.
That diaspora for which they were preparing is still in full force and effect, but now we’re missing the schools to ensure our freedom and our survival. Not only are we still scattered as a nation, we are also failing to educate our children. We need to look back from where we came and take a cue from our sages. We have to reestablish a Jewish school system that can educate all of our children, wherever they may be. And we’re on our way.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, anticipated the need to embed teachers throughout the diaspora. He sought relentlessly to establish a Jewish presence in any and every region – across the world – where there were Jews. Now numbering approximately 5,000, these ubiquitous Chabad Centers serve the roughly 7 million Jews that live outside of Israel. They are beacons of Jewish life and learning in their respective communities.
Meanwhile, Tamim Academy makes it possible for any one of these Chabad centers to establish a high-quality Jewish elementary school that provides the community’s children with the effective Jewish education envisioned by our sages.
The Rebbe emphasized the lasting impact of education. “A proper education ensures that even upon growing and maturing, a child will not depart from his teachings," he taught. "This applies to learning both information and behavior. Whatever you learn as a child always stays with you.”
So here’s what every Jewish child at Tamim Academy, a network of Jewish elementary schools across North America, learns, and what must always stay with them: "God put me here for a good and holy reason. The Jewish people are my family. The land of Israel is my home. I am proud to be a Jew."
Imagine that this is the knowledge our children are armed with when they enter today’s closed-minded and antisemitic college campuses. Imagine how preposterous the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish news and social media would sound to them. Imagine that they could carry these feelings and this knowledge with them, always and forever to share with their own family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and the world.
Jewish history in the distance and current events up close and very personal underscore the urgency to foster a resilient future generation. Simply trying to protect them from antisemitism by eliminating it hasn’t worked up until now. So maybe it’s time to try something else. Let’s empower our children to face it head-on and rise above it. We teach Jewish children to embrace their heritage, not merely as a defensive strategy, but as a proactive step toward facing challenges with Maccabean bravery.
Every Jewish child is entitled to his and her birthright and should be able to articulate it, not just conceptually, but personally. It’s not a reactionary measure against a world of challenges, it’s a proactive step in arming our children to stare down adversity and antisemitism with the ancestral courage that is in their DNA.
That is the secret to the effective Jewish education our sages knew was the foundation of our people’s resilience. It’s a pure source of light that – like the single jug of oil on Hanukkah that lasted a full eight days – has the power to illuminate and fortify the next generations of Jews and the whole world, far beyond its initial burning. We can do this because we are all Maccabees.
- Holly Cohen is the CEO of Tamim Academy, a network of Jewish elementary schools across North America