Hanukkah Kavannot 5776

Hanukkah is the festival of bringing light into the darkest time of the year, and we hope that your holiday is joyous and filled with light. As you enjoy your Hanukkah delicacies and light your Hanukkiyot, we offer you one kavannah for each day of Hannukah.

First Night

A Hassidic tale describes a Rebbe teaching his disciple about a Jew’s task in the world. It is to be a lamplighter, brightening up the streets of the world. After further questioning from the disciple, the Rebbe explains that we must become attune to seeing others as sources of light. When we engage in mitzvot, we light up the souls of those with whom we interact. Our calling, the Rebbe says, is to be a lamplighter, an igniter of souls. (To read the text of the story, click here.)

Over Sukkot, I attended a gathering which honored social action volunteers in the BJ community. As these volunteers prepared plates of food to welcome the guests in our homeless shelter, I felt a profound energy in the Sukkah; I was watching lamps as they were being lit. It was a palpable energy generated by a sense of generosity and an outpouring of hesed, love and kindness. These volunteers, and many others in our community, share their light day after day, in order to brighten someone else’s experience and in doing so, brighten up the world. I feel blessed to be a part of a community with so many inspiring lamplighters.

The message of Hanukkah asks us, even in the dead of winter, to bring more light into the world. Each of us has to see ourselves as lamplighters; we have to look for the lamp posts that could be lit. This charge rings ever true this year, as the world could use each little bit of light. For the next seven days, we’ve asked lamplighters in our community to reflect on what inspires them. As you read these kavannot throughout Hanukkah, I hope you’ll think about what inspires you to be a lamplighter, as well.


Rabbi Sarit Horwitz




Second Night

My father, z”l, was dedicated to University Settlement, the oldest settlement house in America. For his entire life he remained involved with the Settlement, welcoming immigrants and helping to light their path to the American way of life.

Following family tradition and with parental encouragement, in 1948 I went from the comfort of the Upper West Side to the squalor of the Lower East Side to lead a youth group at the Settlement House. I spent three summers at the Settlement Camp, both as work-camper and counselor. I remember kids coming to camp for three weeks, their clothes in a brown paper bag; I was sent off to camp with a trunk. The differences between privilege and neediness have remained in my consciousness. The diverse ethnicity and backgrounds of kids and staff who I met stimulated my interest in “the other.” These experiences inspired me to become a clinical social worker.

As a child I often wondered, “What will I do with my life?” It is my duty to be a lamplighter. Have I fulfilled that duty? When I came back to BJ in 1985 I learned the phrase tikkun olam. The charge to heal the world, had been my family tradition and what I engaged in professionally and personally. My father, who was devoted to serving people and living his love of Judaism, inspired my attempts to improve the lives of people.

It is with great love, respect and gratitude that, as I kindle the first Hannukah candle, I also light my father’s yahrzeit candle, thus bringing a double share of brightness into my home. I hope that I may always participate in the enlightenment and enhancement of those who live in the darkness of poverty and despair.

Nancy Wolkenberg Greenblatt was confirmed at B’nai Jeshurun in 1948 and has been a BJ member since 1985. She chaired the Membership, Archives, Israel and Mekusharim Committees and currently coordinates the Mi Sheberakh Committee. Blessed to share membership with Jack Richard, she is the mother of three adult children and four grandsons. She can be emailed at nancywgee03@gmail.com.


Third Night

As a volunteer with BJ Reads I’ve never thought of myself as a lamplighter, which may not be the best way to start this kavannah. In the many years I’ve volunteered, I always felt that I got at least as much, if not more, out of my sessions than my little reading partner.

BJ Reads is a literacy program where a volunteer is paired for the school year with a young student who is not yet reading at grade level or needs a little extra support. I started volunteering with BJ Reads when my younger son had moved on to chapter books and I missed that intimate time, sharing picture books with an emerging reader. The light I try to share is a love of reading, and light is created when my partner masters a word, a concept, or even just makes a connection. One year my partner was a little girl on the autism spectrum. She read effortlessly, yet without expression. I couldn’t coax her to chat about what we’d read or for that matter, anything else. I was very frustrated, yet determined to penetrate the invisible box around her. One day in late spring when the children lined up to return to class after our session, she broke away from the line, gave me a quick hug, then ran back to her place. At that moment, the light was blinding.

April Stewart Klausner wandered into BJ when Marshall Meyer, z”l, arrived in 1984 and never left. She is an illustrator and graphic designer whose focus is Judaic art and the not-for-profit world. She and her husband Paul, both lifelong New Yorkers, have two sons Gabriel (23) and Jonah (17) and live on the beautiful UWS. She can be reached atapril@ask4art.net.


Fourth Night

I was just a child at the time. I listened attentively to the unfamiliar sounds of my parents’ hushed, deferential voices, to learn that they were discussing the sacred work of the Hevra Kadisha. Even in their (perhaps superstitious) attempt to escape the notice of the Angel of Death by speaking quietly, I sensed that it was something more. I now see it as a deep reverence they were experiencing unique to this special context. A seed was planted in me.

Fast forward over four decades to the day I got “the tap” to be one of the Chairs of BJ’s Hevra Kadisha. Like many of the Biblical heroes I honor so, I reacted with a sense of humility. I reflexively planned to decline. “It is too challenging.” “I am not worthy.” But hearing the echoes of my parents’ past exhortations to never forego a call for a mitzvah, I overcame my trepidations. Who knew that this moment would lead me on a new, glorious path of opportunities, where I would light lamps for others in my community?

I still don’t know what lies on the other side. But I am thankful beyond measure for this blessing that I just might be helping light the path of a soul’s journey to the next world … while bringing some comfort to the loved ones left behind.

Bob Gruenspecht has been a BJ member for 15 years. In addition to being one of the three chairs of the Hevra Kadisha, he is also active in attending and leading morning minyan services and in participating in as many classes as time allows. His children made Aliyah five years ago, giving him chances to visit Israel twice a year.


Fifth Night

I often wonder what “the light” is. Is it God? Ethics? One’s inner core or moral compass? Torah? Hanukkah is the time of light rising, glowing more brightly every day and offering hope, showing that miracles can exist. I often pass beggars on the street and wonder about the difficulties in their lives. Are they sick? Hungry? Is it possible they want money for alcohol or drugs? I wonder if there are places they can go to get food.

Ultimately, I arrive at the question: “Is this really my problem?” and the answer I come up with time and again is, “Of course it is!”

There are so many desperate people out there. Many are helpless, mentally ill, or have been rejected by family. There will always be manipulators and we might never know who they are. But when I consider how insidious hunger is, and how painful it must be to ask for assistance, I begin to wonder where I can begin to make even a momentary difference. Each of us can make a difference.

I volunteer once a week at the Judith Bernstein Lunch Program at B’nai Jeshurun; others do more. It’s hard to imagine a time when there won’t be poor people, homeless people, hungry people, people who are sick. When we help the poor, in whatever way we can, we are adding light to their lives and to the world, regardless of how we define light. Whatever way we can help is worthwhile.

Stephen Silverman is a musician, poet, instrument inventor and teacher of music. He is married with two children and four grandchildren, and recently published a book about his experience volunteering with The Judith Bernstein Lunch Program called Diary of a Naive Volunteer.    



Sixth Night

I recently visited my home in Cape Town, South Africa. Of course, lots had changed since my last visit ten years ago. But a constantly wonderful place is Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens at the foot of the back of Table Mountain. As a child, I cycled there with my dad and elder brother, for “tea and scones” on Sunday mornings and walked around before cycling home again.

On this latest trip, I wanted to visit the benches my family had donated in memory of my parents. As I sat on Dad’s bench, I was reminded of his love of nature and mountaineering. He was a lifelong Scoutmaster whose motto was “be prepared and do good deeds.” Many were done quietly without our knowledge. Driving to work in an empty car, he would stop at the bus stop to offer people a lift into town. An hours-long bus trip was reduced to half the time, which included door to door service. Mom loved to garden and arrange flowers. With a group of women, she arranged flowers for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and banquets which raised money for charity. We never seemed to see our parents on weekends between scouts and weddings! Dropping in to visit an aunt for tea, I would find her recording/reading a book on tape for the blind. At other times the family was volunteering to help those who had problems with the “pass laws” and were being harassed by the government.

I was so fortunate to have had those role models in my family. Growing up in a society characterized by white privilege, injustice, and enormous cruelty, they showed me that even in a small way one should and could try to make a difference.

Pene Raphaely arrived in NYC in 1970. After five interesting careers, she is happily retired. Now she spends her time with her dogs, playing the piano, volunteering, traveling, and relishing all that BJ and New York have to offer.  

Seventh Night

It was a few months after I began volunteering on Sundays at Friendship Circle, an organization for kids with special needs, that I was feeling really energized by thishesed. I was hooked. I was always eager to arrive early and play with the sweetest yet most difficult kids. But I always left exhausted, feeling defeated after a child had been extremely aggressive toward me physically or emotionally, and would tell myself I couldn’t come back next time. And yet I did.

Then one night at a family dinner, my father mentioned the name of his sister, my aunt Elizabeth, z”l, who had Down Syndrome and passed away almost forty years ago of heart issues. Suddenly it clicked. My Hebrew middle name is Elisheva, after Elizabeth. My desire to be a lamplighter in the community of children with special needs and their families was because of my namesake. Subconsciously, I felt an obligation to try and repair the world of someone I never had the opportunity to meet. I feel humbled to connect with Elizabeth’s innocent neshama by helping and nurturing others like her. This Hanukkah, I pray that we all hear the inner voices that can lead us to unexpected places where lamps are still waiting to be lit.

Noa Mintz is a sophomore at the Heschel School and founder of Nannies by Noa, a leading nanny placement agency based in New York City. She is on the board of The Friendship Circle of the Upper East Side and a member of UJA’s Teen Philanthropic Leadership Committee and Task Force. A lifelong BJ member, Noa lives on the Upper West Side with her parents and three younger siblings.



Eighth Night

Shul by day, shelter by night. That’s what the basement of SPSA is to us. Several nights a week the very space where Junior Congregation takes place turns into a homeless shelter. That transformation of divine into concrete and back into divine is what the shelter is all about to Ian and me.

I started working in the shelter because I was tired of over-thinking encounters in the subway. I first brought Ian with me because I didn’t have a sitter. Ian continues going because he really enjoys the guests (and also because the Treats Truck parks nearby on Thursdays).

It’s that practical, tangible part of the work that we love – schmoozing with the guests, long after dinner, about who should be the next James Bond and whether Taylor Swift really represents New York. Watching a BJHS student make the connection between the red pepper she’s chopping and what the guests will eat in two hours. Hanging out with dear friends Gary and Cyd, z”l. Seeing the colorful explosion of messages and drawings the kids leave for the guests on the tablecloths.

As Ian says, “Putting money in helps, but actually doing stuff with your hands helps them directly and feels good, like you’ve actually accomplished something.” I couldn’t agree more. How can we possibly stem the tide of people who need help, every day, everywhere, in NYC? But we can scrape up some mustard for someone’s sandwich, find a packet of mayonnaise or an extra blanket, open the shower stall, dim the lights, wish them a good night. It’s a tiny light in a very large, very dark forest. But you know, it’s not up to us to light the whole world. Nor are we free to leave it in the dark. So we turn up the dimmers in the basement of SPSA.

Elle Melaver is a theater and television writer, as well as a writing teacher. She’s been doing set-up at the BJ/SPSA Homeless Shelter for over 10 years, and she coordinates the BJ Hebrew School Shelter Cooking classes. Ian Krupp is a 7th grader at MS 447, and will become a bar mitzvah at BJ in May. He has been volunteering at the shelter monthly since 2nd grade. They can be reached at elmelaver@gmail.com and kruppdog@gmail.com.