To me, Chanukah is symbolic of freedom. It’s the freedom of being an empty nester with a child able to study in Israel surrounded by our people. It’s the freedom veterans, like my father and father-in-law, fought and sacrificed to ensure, and that Israeli soldiers fight to preserve in the Holy Land encircled by enemies. But it’s a freedom that can be shattered, so easily, by those who wish to limit our religious rights, don’t agree with our beliefs, or are afraid of our power.
As the primary Shabbat usher for Congregation Etz Chaim, I’m the main gatekeeper, ensuring that sanctity is protected for those praying within the sanctuary. My volunteer position took on heightened responsibility after Oct. 27. That’s when a gunman set on terror walked into the sanctuary of a Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh bearing a name eerily familiar to my shul’s, Tree of Life, and murdered 11 congregants. There, but for the grace of G-d, go …
I always thought it was a great privilege to serve as usher and occasionally take the Kohen aliyah on Shabbat like the Jewish men who have always had that right. This was my second year of accepting the Kohen aliyah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It means so much more to me because I grew up in a Conservative synagogue that resigned girls to Friday night and Sunday bat mitzvot – Shabbat was reserved for the boys – with a haftorah reading about inspirational women in the bible bearing no connection to the parshah of the week. This, despite being the valedictorian of my Hebrew School graduating class. In other words, it had nothing to do with intellect, only a male-centered tradition.
Standing on the bimah wearing a tallis these days, reciting the blessings before and after the first Torah reading, is not an evolution I take lightly. I kvell when my daughter tells me through WhatsApp how she wears her tallis regularly during Shabbat services in Jerusalem, trying to convince other girls to do the same. It makes me proud as a Jewish woman in today’s world that we have that right.
But there’s also something to be said about peaceful assembly. So, for someone to jeopardize that freedom to practice religion as we’d like is a personal affront. I will sacrifice my life protecting that freedom if I must. As my birthday is the third day of Chanukah, I get to light a double set of candles and at least wish on one. I pledge this new year of mine to appreciate more, to give back more, to love more, and not to let anyone through the doors I guard as usher who doesn’t value our long-fought Jewish freedom to practice as we choose in peace.
Roni Robbins is a seasoned, award-winning journalist and associate editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.