Let Us Be a Light Unto Our Children This Hanukkah

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication, is a happy holiday, one that commemorates a Jewish military victory and a miracle reflecting God’s intervention on our behalf. It is rich with symbolism and ritual. It is also rich with spirituality, and presents a golden opportunity to teach and show our children what it means to be Jewish.

Like Passover and Sukkot, the majority of Hanukkah rituals take place in the home. We create meaning and memories with our families, taking turns lighting the menorah candles, eating traditional foods and playing dreidel. These activities remind us who we are and where we come from; they link us to each other and anchor us in our Judaism.

These days, it is a challenge to avoid letting Hanukkah become trivialized as a retaildriven, superficial Christmas analog. Our children in particular are under pressure from their peers and the media. It is our job to help them find comfort and significance in the simple act of lighting a candle.

Each flickering flame has the power to connect us to light, the conqueror of darkness and the original source of nourishment. During these dark winter solstice nights, when we place the Hanukkah menorah in a window visible to the public, as is customary in many communities, we go one step further.

Our menorah in the window shows the world that we Jews bring light into the world, that we take seriously and literally our charge of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world). Our menorah in the window shows the world that despite the recent rash of anti-Semitism, we will not be intimidated; we will continue to display our Judaism proudly and publicly.

For Jews, the meaning of light is inspiration, courage, warmth, strength and belief in oneself. This is the lesson of Hanukkah 2014 that we can pass on to our children.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on December 18, 2014.

Passing on Our Spark of Light To the Next Generation

Our Jewish heritage values community, education and tradition. Yet how often, outside of the High Holidays, do we gather as a community of over 700 Jews with the sole agenda of connecting with each other, and our faith, to share, study and celebrate?

LimmudBoston’s fifth annual day-long celebration of lifelong learning on December 7 was just such an occasion, and it was thrilling for the Journal to be there.

The menu of 85 classes clearly proclaimed that we were part of something bigger than ourselves, and that “something” could only be described as being in love with being Jewish.

Rabbis and scholars explored Biblical, Talmudic and contemporary sources. “What’s So Jewish About the News” looked at the top stories in 2014. Classes in spirituality, prayer, parenting, Jewish identity and modern and historic Israel sparked lively debates.

Throughout the day, common themes surfaced: Jews are inclusive; Jews value diversity; vigorous debate is encouraged, but conflict is not; Jews seek a life of meaning; and Jews look to make a difference.

Common questions surfaced, too. The two most often repeated included, “How do we light the spark of a love of Judaism in the next generation? How do we attract the unaffiliated?”

One way might be to make sure everyone has the opportunity to experience an event like LimmudBoston. It is impossible not to come away feeling energized and hopeful. A smaller version of the event could travel to other communities. Campus Hillels could organize transportation so their students could attend. Synagogues could organize field trips for their members and offer free tuition.

One thing is certain: during these tough times of anti-Semitism and attacks against Jews, it is a challenge to remain optimistic about our future. The task of everyone who attended LimmudBoston 2014 is to keep the spark going by spreading their enthusiasm to their communities, friends and families. Like the Hanukkah candles we will soon be lighting, LimmudBoston is a light in the winter darkness.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on December 11, 2014.

A Perfect Fit: Prosthetics, Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam

When he travels to Zacapa, Guatemala to provide prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces to amputees, Michael Smerka of Marblehead takes his responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world (“tikkun olam”) literally. 

A clinical prosthetist who makes and fits artificial limbs for patients who have suffered limb loss, Smerka recently returned from his third trip to Guatemala, as a member of the Range Of Motion Project (ROMP).

“The work is transformative,” the native New Yorker said. “If you do it once, you get addicted.”

ROMP’s mission is to provide used prostheses to those without access to care. While studying for a post-graduate degree in prosthetics at Northwestern University in 2004, Smerka met ROMP’s co-founder Eric Neufeld when they were assigned as lab partners. He remembers Neufeld talking about wanting to do charitable prosthetic work in the developing world.

The two became aware that in the U.S., federal regulations do not allow used prostheses to be resold, and so they would go to waste if the original owner needed refitting or passed away. They began asking families to donate the components and Neufeld decided to send them outside the U.S. to places where there is not access to the care (people trained to fit a prosthesis correctly) or to the artificial limbs.

Neufeld and Dave Krupa cofounded ROMP in 2005, and started a clinic as part of a regional hospital in Zacapa. Over the years, they spent time training local residents to be clinical experts so they can continue to care for people even when the Western clinicians have left.


Pictured from left: Dave Rotter, Marco, Eric Neufeld and Michael Smerka

“That long-term goal is part of the beauty of ROMP,” Smerka said. “We are able to bring them up to speed on current practices, biomechanics and fabrication. We are bringing 21st century technology to a developing country.”

This year, after securing a grant from Grand Challenges Canada, ROMP and University of Victoria engineers collaborated to bring cutting edge 3D printing and scanning capabilities to the Zacapa rehabilitation clinic. Smerka brought the first printer with him on his most recent trip in October, when seven ROMP volunteer clinicians worked on site to fit between 35 and 40 patients with prosthetic feet, legs, hands and arms. The recipients ranged from 8 to 82 years old.

Smerka thinks it is difficult for people in the U.S. to grasp the impact that these limbs have.

“It’s not just a device; it’s life changing for both the amputees and their families,” he said. “What happens is that when somebody becomes an amputee, they become a drain on an impoverished family already in difficult conditions. This helps a child. It helps a father return as a breadwinner to support his family.”

For example, Hilda, a 27-yearold woman Smerka worked with this year, lost her limb in a work-related accident about 18 months ago. She was fit with a first prosthesis, but needed a new one because of anatomical changes to her residual limb. Louisa, a volunteer firefighter, was fitted with an athletic runner’s device donated by the manufacturer Fillauer, enabling her to resume one of her passions.

Hilda and Louisa 

Candidates for treatment go through a six-month process between the times they first contact the clinic and the time the ROMP team arrives. For follow- up care, or if they missed the opportunity to be treated by ROMP clinicians, they still can be fitted by one of the ROMPtrained local clinicians.

Smerka was one of three Jewish ROMP volunteers on this recent trip. “We didn’t do Shabbos, but we acknowledged it by saying, ‘Shabbat Shalom,’” he said, smiling.

Smerka’s path to his current profession was full of twists, turns and serendipity. After earning a BFA from SUNY Purchase, he followed his artistic passion and tried to make a living creating contemporary fine furniture. Realizing he had to supplement his income, he did commercial custom work, eventually working at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “That was a really fun job,” he said.

A knee injury and four months of rehabilitation brought him to a crossroad. In addition to his physical limitations, the climate of the furniture making industry was changing, making it harder to earn a living in that field. He wanted a profession that would fit his interests and art background. He had enjoyed the process of physical therapy, but he also wanted to make use of his artistic skills. When he looked into prosthetics, he discovered a good fit.

“It looked like a perfect combination of working with people, being in a rehabilitation medical setting and building things,” he said. Not long after, he began as an unpaid apprentice to see if he wanted to pursue becoming a clinical Prosthetist; he did.

He started in the field in 2001. In 2011, he and his wife, Heather Glick, moved to her native Marblehead, where they live with their four-year-old son and 16-month-old daughter. He now works at A Step Ahead Prosthetics in Burlington. Its founder, Erik Schaffer, organized a prosthetic limb drive for ROMP and regularly fits wounded Israeli soldiers through FIDF (Friends of the Israel Defense Forces).

Smerka plans to develop a ROMP in Boston where people can access services through A Step Ahead. He points to the many under-insured and undocumented people who need this help. Again and again, Smerka circles back to his Jewish roots and to his gratification of fulfilling the mitzvah of tikkun olam. “Having that Jewish lens wherever you are and whatever you do is important to me,” he said.

For more information or to make a donation, go to rompglobal. org.

Pictured at top: Michael Smerka with Hilda in Zacapa, Guatemala

Pro-Israel Campus Groups Need To Become A Real Movement

Once again, articles about anti-Israel groups on U.S. campuses peppered the Jewish and secular press this week, leaving the impression that Jewish and pro-Israel students are being harassed, intimidated and compromised.

The ADL, in a November 20 blog titled, “Anti-Israel Activity Prevalent on Massachusetts Campuses This Year,” listed nine events that have occurred since September, including a “Festival of Resistance” at Smith College that culminated in an anti-Israel rally outside Northampton City Hall.

Haaretz reported that Wellesley College’s Hillel director and Jewish chaplain were fired after they asked for a meeting with Wellesley’s Students for Justice in Palestine leaders. The Times of Israel reported about SJP’s planned illegal activities against Jewish students and Israel.

Divestment organizers at UCLA, representing a wide coalition of students from all backgrounds and sectors of campus, celebrated a milestone victory for social justice with the passage of “A Resolution to Divest from Companies Engaged in Violence against Palestinians” that singled out Israel.

Once again, pro-Israel groups reacted independently and inconsistently. Some worried that generating outside attention might inflame the situation, making campuses even more vulnerable. Some planned Israel advocacy trainings and sponsored thoughtful opportunities for dialogue. Others rose in defiance, loudly defending Israel against unfair resolutions.

One challenge they all faced was how to address these injustices without legitimizing them. David Suissa, in his opinion piece on the facing page, proposes a solution that is both proactive and constructive.

He suggests that all pro-Israel groups unite behind a single slogan so potent that it will reframe the debate over Palestine in a way that can empower all students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to support Israel.

His idea? “Israel can save the Middle East.”

Think about what might happen if the various pro-Israel groups banded together as a true movement that spoke with one voice and one goal: to draw attention away from Israel’s flaws and towards Israel’s position as the only positive and democratic influence in the Middle East and the only hope for transforming the chaotic region.

Who knows what could happen? Maybe someday the articles about pro-Israel activity on U.S. campuses might just outnumber their counterpart’s.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on December 4, 2014.