What’s It All About?

I know, for sure, that it’s not about the presents. It’s also not about the gelt. I don’t think it’s really about the dreidels. And, I’m pretty sure it’s not really about the candles.

So, what is Chanukah really all about? Well, it’s definitely about giving. It’s also about sharing. I really think it’s also about having fun. And I’m pretty sure it’s really about light.

Even more than all that, the real meaning of Chanukah is “faith in miracles.”  When we think of Chanukkah, more often than not, we first think of giving gifts and gelt (money), eating latkes and sofganyiot (donuts) and lighting the Chanukiah (Chanukah menorah).   However, to find the real meaning of Chanukah, we must look beyond all of that. We must look at what is the reason for the latkes, the dreidels, the Chanukiot and the candles.

Most of us know that the story of Chanukah is a story about how the small army of the Maccabees fought for their right to practice Judaism and even had to fight for their survival.   We know that when they won, and they re-dedicated the Temple they found oil which lasted for 8 days, instead of what appeared to be only enough oil for one day.

However, there is more to the story than just that.  The fact that this amazing group of Jewish survivors found any oil to relight the flame was a mere miracle, and the fact that the oil lasted for eight days was an even greater miracle. Perhaps, though, the greatest miracle of the Chanukah story was that the Maccabees and Judaism survived and to this day, continues to thrive as we continue to keep the flame burning. As we discuss the ancient story of the miracle of the Maccabees, it can only be paralleled to the modern miracle of Israel’s formation and survival, as well.

Chanukah is a time in which we have the opportunity to appreciate all the miracles God performed for the Jews throughout our history, and it’s also a time for us to think about all the miracles we experience in our own lives. Chanukah should also serve to remind us of being open to the possibility of miracles in each and every day of our lives.

When you spin the dreidel and look at the letters which represent the words, “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” – “A Great Miracle Happened There,” may we be always open to receiving and appreciating miracles in our own lives- here and now!

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov serves Temple of Israel in Wilmington, North Carolina.  She also blogs at


To New Beginnings and a New Year

New Year’s Eve has never been that big of a deal for me. However, it was maybe the least exciting “non-celebration,” that was in some ways the most meaningful.  I can vividly remember how I spent that New Year’s Eve while a first year rabbinical student in Israel. I sat home, alone in my apartment in the Ba’aka neighborhood of Jerusalem.  I can remember sitting at the worn, wooden dining room table studying for my classes bright and early the next day. My roommates and some of my classmates had invited me to join them in going out to dinner, but instead, I relished in the fact that in Israel (at least at that time) for many people it was just a “regular day.”  I also had begun at that time to really change my thinking about how Rosh Hashanah was really MY New Year.

So, while in the years since then I don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve with much more than chiming in with the countdown as the “Ball Drops in Times Square,” I do still very much appreciate the “new beginning” that comes with January 1st.  New beginnings are such a wonderful, powerful and yet almost common idea within Judaism. According to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) we have the tradition of four different “New Year” celebrations. Each Jewish year we have Rosh Hashanah (The “official” head of year), Tu B’shvat (the New Year – or Birthday of the trees), and the lesser “observed” the First of Nissan (the New Year for Rulers) and the First of Elul (somewhat of a New Year for animals). And if we like New Beginnings- we as Jews have one each and every month with Rosh Hodesh.  Still another way to celebrate new beginnings is with the festivals that mark the seasons of harvest, an agricultural new beginning.

Another holiday which is an essential “New Beginning” is, of course, Simchat Torah which marks both an end and beginning at the same time.  In some ways, this is the most appealing to me- for in almost the same moment as we end, we also begin. We could compare this to the idea that “when one door closes- another opens.” For those who observe or celebrate a secular New Year’s Celebration, I think that is what the countdown is all about…a moment of transition. A moment to move from what has happened- be it good or bad- to what yet will be.  In those seconds of counting down from “ten to one,” it is an opportunity to say goodbye and hello all at the same time.  This sense of time is a celebration of possibilities and hopes that come with a New Year and most new beginnings. During our religious New Year of Rosh Hashannah, sometimes I think we (rightfully) are so focused on prayers and judgement that the element of time itself- the power of quickly moving from the old to the new can get lost.

This sense of change also happens with every new beginning of a book of the Torah.  Every time we end a book and shout- “Chazak, Chazak v’Nitchazek”  Strength, Strength, may we be Strengthened, we are celebrating the passage of time -what was and what will be. Yes, we are celebrating our text, but we are also celebrating the strength we have gained from what we’ve studied and the excitement of what will be in the next chapter.

As we move into this new secular year of 2018, there is also the added Jewish element with the number 18, allowing this secular year to be one in which we can focus on making it a year for life.  So, let this new secular year be a time for new beginnings, a time in which we will move from strength to strength and a time to live each day in a way that brings meaning to life. L’Chaim…To life… to 2018!

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov serves Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, PA.  She also blogs at

Shavuot Torah

Standing At Sinai

If ever you meet a fellow Jew and you can’t place where you’ve met before, after a game of “Jewish Geography,” you might just concede and say, “well, at least I know we were together at Sinai.”  For it is said, that the souls of ALL Jews (even those who choose Judaism later in life) were together at Mount Sinai to receive and witness the revelation of Torah.

As we rejoice in the holiday of Shavuot- the holiday that commemorates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, we actually have an opportunity to remind ourselves that the Torah and the wisdom of Judaism continues to be revealed to us each and every day.

Thanks to my friend and mentor, Rabbi Jeff Sirkman I have learned to call any moment of revelation a “Sinai Moment,” in honor of the fact that we all have a chance to “stand at Sinai,” we all can have a sense of revelation that in some way deepens our connection to Torah, our faith and Judaism in general.

Without going into all the “mushy details,” for me, a major “Sinai Moment” in my life came on my second date with my husband. As he stood outside the Karaoke restaurant where we were to meet, I looked up and just felt a sense of revelation- I knew something was different, I knew I was experiencing something incredibly special in my life.  I didn’t know what exactly, but I knew something was being revealed to me.  Some of you may even be able to pinpoint one or hopefully multiple “Sinai Moments” in your own life.  Was it the birth of a child? Or when, thank God, you overcame something terrible in your life? Or was it something else?

Right now and at all times we should be open to witnessing a “Sinai Moment.” At this very moment, each of us can live out the words expressed in Deuteronomy 29:14, and be like our elders who stood at Sinai and those who weren’t there, but still accept Torah. We can make the decision to accept Torah, in that we must take on the challenge to live out what it means to be Jewish and to be part of a community, in whatever way it is revealed to you.

Like all of the souls at Sinai, we need to actively accept the yoke of being a Jew and being part of a community. Together it is up to us to do our part to remember the past, celebrate the present, and secure the future of Judaism by being open to “Sinai Moments” and all moments of Revelation.

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov serves Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, PA.  She also blogs about the recent loss of her father at