Last night, we began the celebration of Hanukkah. The story of the Festival of Lights chronicles the heroic rebellion of the Maccabees against the Greeks and their Assyrian allies, who had ruled over the former Jewish Kingdom since its conquest at the hands of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. Prior to this rebellion, ancient Greece increasingly had imposed its will upon the Jews—outlawing the practice of Judaism and desecrating the Holy Temple. In triumph, the Maccabees entered the Temple only to discover destruction and devastation within. They re-lit the menorah, the symbol of Jewish sovereignty, bringing light into the darkness, and began the work of renewing the beauty and majesty of Israel’s holiest site, eventually rededicating the Temple and restoring the pride of a nation.
In response to the pandemic and as part of our movement-wide commitment to being there for one another through JResponse®, members of the JCC Association staff, like so many across the Jewish community, have been volunteering at local JCCs, often packaging and delivering food and supplies to isolated seniors and others in need. This past Wednesday, Mark Young, director of JResponse®, and Irina Khomina, manager of human resources, received this note from Victoria Neznansky, chief development and social services officer at the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood, in New York City:
I cannot find words to express my gratitude for the biggest Mitzvah offered today by Irina Khomina’s family. One of our community members, a Russian Holocaust survivor, lost his wife of more than 50 years a few days ago. With no children, no relatives, or close friends to support him during this difficult time, the Y stepped in, arranging for a funeral service with the help of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, using The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund to offset the $2,400 cost of the burial, and provided emotional support and preparation for him ahead of tomorrow’s burial at the Jewish cemetery in Staten Island.
What we could not provide was a Russian-speaking escort and a car service that would take him and his home attendant from his apartment in Washington Heights to Staten Island, accompany him to the burial site, connect with the rabbi, stay with him during and after the service, and bring him back to Washington Heights. With no one to be present at the burial except for his English-speaking home attendant, who has never been to a Jewish cemetery before, a simple Uber service would have not been enough, and we were deeply concerned about the widower’s well-being.
That’s when Vanessa Waye (JCC Association’s chief of staff), who just heard of the case while volunteering at the Y today, decided to contact Irina Khomina, another Y volunteer and a staff member of JCC Association. What happened next was nothing but a miracle. Irina’s husband, Roman, decided to take an unpaid day off from work for tomorrow, to be that person who would spend a day with the grieving, utterly devastated and lost Holocaust survivor, offering not just a hand but his heart.
In the Hanukkah story, amidst the wreckage of the Temple, the Maccabees found only enough oil to keep the menorah lit for a single day – though it miraculously continued to burn for eight days—the time it took to gather more oil to sustain the light. This week, 10 months into the pandemic, Victoria, Vanessa, Irina, and Roman illuminated a moment of personal devastation for a treasured member of our community whose life has known far too much darkness already.
May Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, illuminate our hearts and remind us of the awesome power and potential that abounds when we bring light into the darkness.
Chag Urim Sameach | חג אורים שמח—Happy Festival of Lights—and Shabbat shalom.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America