We are now halfway through the beloved days of Chanukah, ingesting the incredible delicacies that come with tradition and hopefully being inspired by the light of the menorah. In HaYom Yom, a book compiled in the 1940s by the Rebbe, of blessed memory, he writes “Where a lantern is placed, those who seek light gather around, for light attracts.” I find that to be the case every time.
We often hear that “bad news sells,” which may have some truth to it, considering how the 24/7 news cycle has grown. But even truer is that miracle stories, moments of human kindness and goodness, and episodes of hope and resilience, sell a lot more. Even forces of darkness, antagonists who are “officially” at odds with the light of Torah, people who claim to dislike “Jews” or “Orthodox Jews” are attracted to the light and can’t resist it, even if they aren’t dealing with it respectfully.
When the Rebbe first started with the menorahs in malls, parks, government offices, on car rooftops, the Eiffel Tower, Red Square in Moscow, Central Park, Grand Army Plaza, JFK Airport, downtown Bozeman, and every other public space on Planet Earth, many Jews weren’t sure about it. Some were uncomfortable with such vocal Jewish expression and celebration, others were simply worried about inciting anti-Semitism and hateful acts towards Jews, and yet others simply couldn’t handle Lubavitch “once again,” like with tefillin initiatives, getting out on the streets and making Lubavitch the public face of Judaism. Yet, 40 years later, everyone is publicly displaying Chanukah because light is contagious. The fact that Reform and Conservative places of worship are displaying menorahs in their front yards is a good thing for Yiddishkeit.
As a yeshiva student, I spent Chanukah in so many places—on army bases in Northern Israel and dormitories at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, in a nursing home in Youngstown, Ohio, and homes in Edmond, Oklahoma. Everywhere I traveled, the menorah evoked amazing, positive, and delightful responses from Jews and gentiles alike. They weren’t responding to my good looks; it’s basic—light is soul-searing and every soul is touched by it. Sure, souls can be marred by chaos and negativity, souls can be “burned” by falsified Judaism and clueless Hebrew-school teachers, spiritual journeys can be tainted by miserable experiences and a Judaism that is portrayed as morbid … yet, when these beautiful abused souls finally get a dose of light, a moment of illumination, they jump back to themselves, their natural core comes alive, and they are inspired and enlivened.
Last year, we were unable to host our regular Chanukah Bash due to COVID, so we arranged a Menorah Parade. It was led by our amazing sheriff deputies as we paraded through Bozeman and nearby Belgrade. The Kiddush Hashem was above and beyond anything Chavie and I could’ve imagined. The people who joined with their cars were uplifted, the comments on social media from those who saw it come through town were so positive, and the deputies themselves enjoyed it immensely. Even though our annual Chanukah Bash is back, we are doing the parade again, this year with 28 menorah cars, as “koach” in Hebrew is the numerical value of 28 and we need these menorahs, this parade, to bring us renewed koach, inner strength and courage, to help us combat darkness and illuminate Montana.
The souls on fire due to the light reminds me of my first visit to Montana, when my buddy Yitzchak and I visited for a month during the summer of 2004. One Monday morning in Helena, supplied with a list of a few Jewish families, we went to the home of a fellow named Fritz at around 9:00 a.m. and rang the doorbell. He opened the door, looked at us straight in the eyes, and before we could say a word, said loudly, “No, no, no!” He was about to slam the door in our faces, when, so out of the blue that I don’t know where it came from, I blurted, “Good Shabbos!” to which he responded “Good Shabbos” as he slammed the door. Turns out he was a Yid who married a Catholic some 40 years earlier and “converted” to his wife’s faith, lo aleinu. Of course, we know that he’s still a Jew with an unbreakable bond with Hashem, but for practical purposes he was distant from his people. Yet, in a moment of brightness, when he had been wished a “Good Shabbos” on a Monday morning, he responded instinctively with a “Good Shabbos” as well.
Back in the 1980s, when I was a five-year-old kid, my senior colleague Rabbi Yanki Tauber, who is a prolific writer (and resident of the Five Towns), visited Missoula in Western Montana to bring Yiddishkeit to the Jews in the area. When he and his chavrusa arrived at the home of my friend Bruce Barrett on the outskirts of town, they were greeted with two words: “Shalom Gefiltefish!” As chassidim of the Rebbe, they didn’t laugh or chuckle, scoff or correct; they did what we do—they put on tefillin with him and offered his wife Shabbos candles, bringing authentic Judaism to Jews on the range. Bruce explained later that those were the two Jewish words he knew at the time, and so he proudly greeted them with his Jewish identity. As the years passed, Bruce grew in his Yiddishkeit, becoming active in AIPAC and a staunch supporter of Israel. He also had the z’chus, the great merit, which not many from Montana have had, to visit the Rebbe after the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka in the winter of 1988.
So if you don’t already do this, get an extra menorah and put it in your office or workplace. If you know a Jew in a nursing home or assisted-living facility, go visit with a menorah and dreidels. If you own property near a public thoroughfare, get a six- or nine-foot menorah and light it up. You never know what that light will illuminate and what that can do for a neshamah or two.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail email@example.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.