Two years ago I was in Baltimore on business and happened to pass by the public menorah in front of Johns Hopkins University just as the first light was being lit.
My eyes welled with tears. Although I was raised a secular Jew, my family has always celebrated Chanukah. To be away from my family that first night of the holiday felt cold and lonely. Now, seeing the lights of the first night’s flames of that big menorah, my heart lit up also and I felt the warmth of my people all around me.
The next day I was walking by the waterfront and a young man in a black hat ran up to me and politely asked, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
Somewhat surprised that anyone would care, I answered in the affirmative.
“Do you know that it’s the second night of Chanukah tonight?” he asked earnestly.
“Do you have a menorah?” he inquired, looking a bit anxious.
“No,” I replied.
“Do you want one?” he asked hopefully.
“Do you have one?” I asked, almost shouting with joy.
“Yes, and I’ll get you one!” he replied, almost as excited as I.
He ran off and returned moments later with an entire menorah kit in a box: little brass candleholder, box full of the right number of candles, and complete instructions. Also a DVD full of Chanukah stories, how-tos, even recipes. I politely declined the offer of a donut (fried foods are traditional on Chanukah, but I have to pace myself) and raced off to my hotel room to examine the contents of the box and watch the DVD.
Childhood memories of Chanukah lights, my father telling stories of the Maccabees the miracle of how one day’s worth of oil somehow lasted for eight days…it all came flooding back. I knew I had been given a gift that Chanukah in Baltimore: the gift of the return of Judaism to my life, and of my life to Judaism.
All this because of a menorah on the steps of a public institution. And all because I “happened” to be passing by that day and the flame of the menorah ignited the spark that had been sleeping in my Jewish heart for nearly 50 years.
When I returned to Seattle the following week, I called a rabbi for the first time in my life. I told him what the menorah in Baltimore had stirred in me. Over the next two years, with his wise and gentle guidance I found my way as a fully observant Jew. The spark that was rekindled by a public menorah is now a steady burning flame.
How grateful I am to live in a country that is founded on the right to worship as we choose, in the manner in which we choose. I thank our founding fathers who crafted the Constitution of the United States of America, which recognizes our freedom to express and practice our religion. And I thank those who have the courage, in these sometimes dark times, to defend those rights.
We never know how many hearts and lives are touched and, yes, even transformed, by the sight of the miraculous Chanukah lights, shining into the darkest reaches and reminding us of miracles long ago and not so long ago.
All those selfless souls whose courage and staunch commitment fuel the kindling of light the world over deserve our heartfelt gratitude. I know they have mine.