Winter has always been my favorite time of year. Not so much the painful cold, but the holidays and the way people seem to be a bit friendlier around this time (except for about 40% of the customers I came across all my years of working retail during the holiday season). But there was always something really special for me about walking into the supermarket and hearing Michael Bublé’s Holly Jolly Christmas or seeing trees and lights up all around town, because although I never celebrated Christmas myself, there was something different in the air. It isn’t so far from that here in Harare, although instead of a foot of snow, we have 80 degrees and rain. Whether we are celebrating Chanukah, Christmas, or Kwanza, from Thanksgiving until New Years, there is so much excitement around trying to tie up loose ends and finishing the year strong, spending time with those we love, and anticipating what could possibly come next.
It has been a while since I posted, mainly because here at HLS, we are progressing at a very steady, but very busy, pace. In our continuing Hebrew studies, the students are not only speaking and reading Hebrew, but beginning to write and (I just recently found out) have basic conversations with one another in Hebrew on a daily basis in person or even over text. In a week and a half, the students will be participating in a full kriyah of the parsha, doing readings they have been studying and learning on their own and with me. We now have a full repertoire of Hebrew songs, from Naomi Shemer to Arik Einstein to Hi-Five (because there’s always room for 90’s pop). Additionally, the students have gained an understanding of how to study parshat hashavu’ah on their own, asking questions and raising discussions.
Services on Shabbat mornings have completely transformed thanks to the dedication of the students who push themselves to learn new t’fillot every week and practice relentlessly (it isn’t uncommon to hear someone walking around the house singing parts of the Torah service or P’sukei D’zimrah on a regular basis). This past weekend we had Dr. Rabson Wuriga, the leader of the Lemba in Mapakomhere, staying with us for Shabbat. They have had very limited education there in terms of modern Judaism. In Dr. Wuriga’s Shabbat services, they typically read in English from the siddur and chumash, with the hope that someday they will be doing a full traditional service. Harare Lemba Synagogue started out exactly where he is now, and I believe seeing the potential of where his service could be with some help, really inspired him. It was really a pleasure for us to be able to show off, so to speak, how far this congregation has come in just a year.
Besides this being the first year I spent a birthday away from home (and I thank all the wonderful people I have met for making it a special one), this was also the first Chanukah I was away. Even during my time at Rutgers, I would come at least to spend a weekend or a night at home and light the candles with the whole family. Again, it wasn’t easy being so far from home on a holiday I love so much, especially after learning that my favorite vegan bakery was making sufganiyot this year. However, I won’t ever forget my first time lighting Chanukah candles in the summer, with people who were lighting for the first time, teaching children to spin dreidels for the first time, and singing all of the Chanukah songs I grew up loving. It was unique and beautiful. Even Shlomo seems to finally be moving on from singing Dayenu to Maoz Tsur (which will probably last until this coming Pesach).
Chanukah is a time when we remember the sacrifices the Maccabees made to fight for the right to be Jewish and practice Jewish traditions and rituals. Here, I am privileged to be with a group of people who withstood religious persecution and are still dealing with extreme separation from the rest of the Jewish world. A group that is continuing to stay strong in their beliefs of Judaism, continuing to take the time to learn and to be Jews the way we practice throughout the rest of the world. This is what Chanukah is about. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity I have, celebrating these times with the Lemba in Harare, and I continue to be thankful for it and look forward to making the most of the little time I have left.
As young children, we learn the Chanukah story of the oil that lasted for eight days instead of one, only to learn around the time our friends learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real, that this story probably wasn’t either. However, one of the wonderful ideas that we will forever associate with Chanukah is this idea of perseverance and hope. That big miracles can happen and even when it feels like we have nothing left to give, we go on just a little longer. We go into the secular new year with the motivation to continue to grow and learn even more than we did the year before.
There is no question that HLS is finishing 2014, an incredible year, very strong. With the unfortunate fact that I will be leaving sooner than I had originally planned at the end of January, it is so comforting for me to see that the congregants here are lunging into 2015 with so much motivation and so much promise. I am looking forward to seeing how far they can go in the year to come.