Part 1 of a special Monday spiritual series — look for Part 2 next week: Winter Solstice
Rabbi Harry Brechner serves over 200 families at Emanu-El Synagogue on Blanshard Street. He arrived at the synagogue in 2001 and has been active ever since, especially at this time of year, during Hanukkah, Dec. 8 to 16.
“The story of Hanukkah is about the Syrian Greeks not allowing Jews to practice their faith. It’s a story of religious identity,” says Brechner. “But it isn’t exactly a big a religious deal. Because it’s so close to Christmas it’s gotten some extra oomph. It isn’t in the Bible.”
The heightened awareness does have some advantages for community building. Sat., Dec. 15, a day before the final day of Hanukkah, there will be a public lighting of the Menorah in Centennial Square, complete with traditional Jewish music. Everyone is welcome.
Brechner is originally from the U.S., where he says events like this aren’t as commonplace. Yet being Jewish in Victoria comes with its own set of challenges. “Jewish children see all of these [Christmas] images and know they don’t have anything to do with them. It’s part of the negotiation between being Jewish and being a part of a larger community.”
Like Victoria itself, the Jewish faith has a more casual flow on the Island. “We’re pretty much as far as you can get [from Israel], so we can push the envelope. We are conservative, but we’re very progressive when it comes to the social work we do. For our faith and synagogue, giving is something you should do all the time. If there is a need, fill it.”
That’s one reason this 150-year-old iconic building opens its door to youth living on the street every Saturday night. A warm place to sleep and a protein-rich meal is provided year-round. The synagogue also partners with McGregor socks, aiming to put 2,000 socks on the bare feet of in-need fellow Victorians.
The history of Emanu-El has long been one of collaboration. When the government didn’t offer a land grant like it had to Christian churches, the group could have been lost. “It was the other religious organizations that urged us on, helped us build. Also, union and non-union worker alike helped us, often taking pay cuts,” recounts Brechner.
Over the eight-day Hanukkah celebration, Rabbi Harry will honor the Menorah Lighting Ceremony. “In my family, we will light a candle on each night and we give the gift of social action.”
For other families, the celebration may be different, but the concept of light glimmers throughout. “Hanukkah is about moving from a time of darkness to a time of light once again.”
To learn more or donate to Emanu-El’s ongoing fundraiser to repair the roof in the sanctuary, visit congregationemanu-el.ca, or just stop by. They boast the best candles in the city. M