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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, April 18, 2024

Hanukkah lighting ceremony reflects on Jewish identity, antisemitism

University President Anthony Monaco helps light a menorah outside the Mayer Campus Center at the Hanukkah lighting ceremony organized by the Rohr Chabad House at Tufts on Dec. 2.

Around 60 students on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus welcomed a rainy first night of Hanukkah at the Mayer Campus Center Sunday in a candle-lighting service that was as much about the holiday as about American Jewish identity in the wake of the recent rise in antisemitism.

The ceremony, a 15-year-old outreach initiative by the Rohr Chabad House at Tufts that has become a tradition frequented by university presidents and the Tufts Pep Band alike, took place under the breezeway between the Campus Center and the bookstore because of rain. Rabbi Tzvi Backman, director of Chabad at Tufts, led the ceremony.

Backman showed the crowd a 1931 photograph of an unlit menorah on a windowsill in Kiel, Germany. Beyond the menorah, through the window, a banner with a swastika can be seen, belonging to the Nazi Party’s headquarters in the town.

Backman read the inscription that the photographer, Rachel Posner, wife of the town's rabbi, wrote on the picture’s back.

“‘Judea dies,’ thus says the banner,” Backman recited. “‘Judea will live forever,’ thus responds the lights.”

Backman later told the Daily that he had been struck by the photograph’s prescience. He noted that even though it was taken before the Nazi Party had seized power, Posner had predicted both the antisemitic violence, and the Jewish perseverance, that would come.

“It’s before anybody even knew what was going to happen [in Europe],” Backman said.

Backman connected the 1931 photograph to last month’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, located in the neighborhood that Backman grew up in.

“I saw this [photo] and I thought, 'This is what we’re witnessing here,'” Backman said. “There was an act of antisemitism meant to intimidate and to instill fear and to threaten.”

University President Anthony Monaco attended the service to light the shamash, or attendant, candle. In short remarks before he lighted the candle, he spoke about the photo’s troubling imagery.

“[The rabbi’s] photograph reminds us of the historical darkness of human nature,” Monaco said.

He continued, saying that it was important for the community to celebrate the menorah’s light.

Backman spoke about creating light in times of darkness, which was also a major theme at the campus memorial service for the Tree of Life victims, held at the Granoff Family Hillel Center. Then, Backman and Rabbi Naftali Brawer, Tufts' Jewish Chaplain and Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel, both meditated on candlelight and memory.

At Sunday's ceremony, Backman said that the Tufts community seems “prouder of their identity, prouder of their Judaism” in the wake of the shooting.

He praised attendees for coming to see the lighting.

“We have to know that we can be confident in our identity that we will remain and we will stand strong,” Backman said. “And that confidence is actually displayed when we come out and celebrate in an open and public manner.”

In an interview with the Daily, Chabadat Tufts Student Board President Ilana Gitlin noted the ceremony’s high attendance in spite of the rain. She said Hanukkah’s message is important with recent antisemitic attacks in mind.

“I think the whole message of Hanukkah at this time is very important: to spread the light, and more than that to not let oppressors get their way even if you might be the underdog -- even if you might be the little guy, the underdog can still win," Gitlin, a senior, said.

The half hour-long ceremony was not all about somber reflection: Tufts Pep Band played Hanukkah-themed music, and there were latkes and jelly doughnuts for attendees. Pep Band President Elias Marcopoulos, a senior, conducted the band.

Marcopoulos explained what the Pep Band brought to the event.

“What we primarily function as is a group that raises spirit, and this is a quite spirited event,” Marcopoulos said. “We’re literally lighting the lights for hope. What better way to do that then to have the Pep Band with you, who can bring pep to the occasion too?”

Marcopoulos and Backman both said that this was the Pep Band’s 12th year playing at the menorah-lighting event.

Senior Zachary Kaplan, who played the service as a member of the Pep Band during his first semester at Tufts and has attended every subsequent menorah lighting service, reflected on the ceremony.

“It’s one of the most fond memories I have about Judaism,” he said. “I think it’s nice to continue doing it in college.”