Monday December 23rd – The Second Night
by Rabbi Dev Noily
This year’s Kehilla Hanukkah party will include our usual fabulous puppet show for the littlest Kehillians, latkes, candle lighting and joyful celebration. And we’ll also have the chance to hear from an amazing leader in our Bay Area community, Zahra Billoo. I met Zahra, a brilliant Muslim civil rights lawyer and the Executive Director of CAIR-SF, a couple of years ago when we spoke together on a panel. Each of us had been called upon to represent our people’s experiences and fears of rising Islamophobia (Zahra) and rising antisemitism (me) in the post-Obama era. I learned a lot from Zahra that evening, and I’ve continued to learn from her and to be inspired by her leadership and integrity in the time since.
Twice in the last two years, Zahra has been honored for her bold and visionary leadership, only to face a backlash from certain Jewish sources who attacked her for her support for the Palestinian struggle. The first time, PACT, the Faith in Action affiliate in San Jose, announced that Zahra was the recipient of their annual award. The award was rescinded because of the pressure from Jewish sources, but was subsequently reinstated because of an outpouring of support for Zahra. Most recently, Zahra was named to the national board of the Women’s March. Once again, pressure was exerted and the Women’s March gave in and withdrew Zahra’s appointment.
To me, these attacks on Zahra are heartbreaking and dangerous. Zahra is a champion of civil liberties, fighting against Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and antisemitism. I see Zahra, and the communities she represents, as critical allies in our resistance to creeping authoritarianism and scapegoating of vulnerable minorities in our country.
I’m honored that Zahra agreed to be our guest as we celebrate Hanukkah, and to join me in conversation. I’m eager to learn more from her about the challenges facing the Muslim community in the Bay Area, and I’m excited for more people in our community to get to know Zahra as we build this relationship of solidarity.
Our Hanukkah party will begin at 5:15 with an amazing puppet show by Jen Miriam and Alon Altman, followed by candle lighting and a potluck dinner at 6:00. We’ll provide the latkes, lovingly fried up by our tireless and cherished Latke Maven, Jack Stuber. At 7:00, Zahra will speak in the sanctuary (and games and schmoozing will continue downstairs for anyone who’s not ready to stop spinning their dreidl.)
The story behind Hanukkah is a complicated one. Jews were being oppressed and were reacting in all kinds of ways—including passing as Greeks, resisting nonviolently, and mounting a violent and zealous insurgency that targeted both Greeks and Jewish non-resistors. It’s this last crew whose victory we recall on Hanukkah. The rabbis of the Talmud were so uncomfortable with valorizing these zealots’ military tactics that they established a spiritual basis for the celebration of Hanukkah—the miracle of the oil to rededicate the temple lasting eight days—and mostly ignored the rest (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b). Hanukkah is a time to celebrate light and loved ones, to enjoy delicious food and play games, to sing and dance. And it’s also a time to be brave – to face the complexities of our history and our present moment with curiosity and openness. It’s a time to trust that the deepest teachings of our tradition—about love, justice and the holiness of all life—will guide us through.