Finding light amid the pandemic

Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center is decorated for Chanukah.
Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center is decorated for Chanukah. (Photo by Kate Conway)

By Dava Schub

Special to WJW

Nine months into a global pandemic and somehow, during the darkest month of the year even under normal circumstances, we are managing to find light.

The lights that wrap the 16th Street steps of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center during Chanukah inspire me because they declare that we will continue to create beauty and will not retreat even in these scary and uncertain times.

The light that shines as tens of thousands of us, locally and across the world, lit candles with friends and family whom we miss terribly but still manage to be with over Zoom or Facetime, because these connections truly matter. The light that we generate when we reach out and do something for someone else to make them feel less alone, less broken, less vulnerable or less afraid.

We must seek light and, when it is not there, we must find new ways to create it.

In the Talmud, Rabbis Shammai and Hillel are known for their disagreements. Take lighting the menorah: Shammai says we should start with all eight candles lit — manifesting an abundance of joy and light from day one, letting the light diminish each night by one flame.

Hillel’s take is that we should start with one candle and build up from there. This approach invites us to start from wherever we are. Start with one small light and build slowly and steadily. For many in our community, this has been an almost unbearable stretch of illness, loss, loneliness, fear and isolation. The light has been diminished. When we light the first candle, as Hillel suggests, the flame is so small, it illuminates just enough so we can more clearly see the darkness. Starting with one candle and growing the light from there allows us to honor the darkness and to build the light.

And, as I looked into the flames this past week, I saw light growing all around me.

The light of our EDCJCC preschool families taking personal actions for the collective good of our school community — canceling travel plans, sharing concerns of potential COVID exposure, getting tested, keeping their children home even when minor symptoms might otherwise have gone undetected under cover of a mask.

There is light in the virtual holiday wish lists being fulfilled for children in need, the meals being delivered each day to hospitals around the country to say thank you to frontline workers. The work of our partners at DC Central Kitchen who prepare 2.2 million meals each year for people in need, shines brightly, because although the issue of food insecurity does not make the daily headlines, we know that food lines have grown many-fold since March and the need is not going away anytime soon. Our District of Columbia Public Schools teachers, who show up each morning and bring their light to 48,439 children from a range of circumstances. And it matters. My daughter is meeting new children on Zoom screens and learning long division during a pandemic. When she falls behind on homework, her teacher, who is doing a job she never signed up for, makes time to check in with her, to offer tech support and talk through strategies that make it just a little bit more manageable (Thank you Ms. McNeal!).

Like the shamash, which lights each candle on the menorah, a candle that lights another does not diminish its own light, it only creates more light. Let us each find ways to be a shamash in our families and in our communities.

I see a huge light shining, knowing that the first 6,800 doses of the COVID vaccine have just made their way to a Washington, D.C., hospital. I am in awe at the unimaginable dollars and countless hours of work and wisdom that have gone into creating this vaccine at unprecedented speed and with shocking rates of effectiveness. I am hopeful knowing that the District has put together a vaccine plan that prioritizes health care workers, teachers and those living in nursing home facilities.

On this final night of Chanukah, look into the flames of your menorah before they flicker out and imagine where you will continue to find (and create) light. We will need all of the light we can find in the months ahead.

I’m feeling optimistic that we have what it takes to dig deep to support our neighbors and those most in need, to wear masks and to limit our exposure, to make sacrifices large and small for the collective good, to support small businesses and to take the time to understand issues that challenge our city and our world, so that when we are ready to re-emerge, we will not just be returning to the world that we left, but working toward creating one that we can aspire to live in.

Dava Schub is chief executive officer of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center.

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