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Messianic Jews see hope in Hanukkah celebration

ROCHESTER, Ill. (BP)–The Arthur family will gather around the kitchen table in their duplex to light the shamash, the name for the candle in the center of their nine-pronged menorah, to observe the first day of Hanukkah. This Jewish holiday, which many Christians know about but often don’t grasp, holds an added dimension for this family that isn’t part of the celebration for millions of other Jews also lighting candles at sundown on Dec. 21.

Terry and Diane Arthur, along with their three children, attend Petah Tikvah, a Messianic Jewish congregation that’s part of the Capital City Baptist Association in Springfield, Ill. Their youngest son, 10-year-old Zachary, described his faith best when he explained how school friends have a hard time understanding his beliefs. “A lot of times, I don’t think they understand that if you’re a Messianic Jew, you believe that Yeshua, Jesus, is the Son of God.”

That inability to understand isn’t limited to schoolmates. Messianic Jews face misunderstandings from both ends of the religious pendulum. Their evangelical brothers often don’t see the need for them to embrace their Jewish roots, and other Jews do not consider Jesus Christ to be the promised Messiah.

The heart of Messianic Judaism is about reaching other Jewish people for Christ, said Mike Copen, the rabbi at Petah Tikvah, which meets Friday nights at Prairie Streams Christian Church in Springfield. “We are not separating ourselves,” he said. “We believe Yeshua [the Hebrew word for Jesus] is the anointed one of God, that he was born of a virgin. We just don’t follow the Christian calendar.”

The priority for many Messianic Jews is to “first bring other Jews to the knowledge that Yeshua is the Messiah,” Copen said. And that’s a hard sell because Jewish people are skeptical of those who follow the Christian faith, often with sound reasons, Copen said. History is filled with examples where people, most notoriously Adolph Hitler, have persecuted Jews while claiming to do so in the name of Christ.

Messianic Jews are careful to avoid gentile terms such as being saved, so they can establish a vocabulary that won’t immediately turn off another Jewish person. They refer to the entire Bible as the Torah, and the cross as an execution stake, Copen said. They show other Jews that through Messianic Judaism they do not have to walk away from their heritage to be a follower of Jesus.

In that sense, for Messianic Jews, Hanukkah fulfills their heritage and puts the focus on Christ, said Steve Barack, rabbi for B’nai Ohe Beth Tefilah, a Messianic Jewish congregation that meets in a Lutheran church in Lindenhurst, part of the Lake County Baptist Association, north of Chicago. “We see Hanukkah as a very spiritual event. We can be overjoyed with the fact that God has dedicated himself to us, even to the point that he sent his Son to die for us.”

Hanukkah, also known as the Feast of Dedication and as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for eight days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and ending on the second of Tevet. That first day will be Dec. 22 this year, but because all Jewish holidays begin at sundown, the first candle is actually lit on the evening of Dec. 21.

A common misconception about Hanukkah is that it is the Jewish counterpart to Christmas, perhaps because the two holidays are celebrated about the same time of year. Many scholars, Jews and gentiles alike, believe Jesus was born in the fall, around the time Jews celebrate Sukkot, Copen said. While exchanging gifts is popular during both winter holidays, Hanukkah had taken on this gift-giving custom when Jews tried to assimilate themselves into a gentile society, he said.

The Arthurs do not exchange gifts during Hanukkah, which allows them to keep the focus on the holiday’s spiritual dimension rather than opening a door to allow commercialization to distract them from it. “People come to think of this time of year as a season to bring gifts. If they have any thought of Jesus, he’s been shoved in the background.”

The origin of Hanukkah traces back to about 165 years before Christ’s birth when Antiochus IV desecrated the Jerusalem temple when some Jews continued to refuse to convert to Hellenism, the ethical system of ancient Greece, and abandon their distinctive culture. An army of Jewish rebels led by Judas Maccabeus drove out the Syrian forces and recaptured the temple. During the temple’s rededication, they fixed the broken menorah, a symbol for the light of God, but found only enough specially prepared oil for one day. About eight days would be needed to prepare new oil. They lit the menorah, and its oil lasted for the full eight days.

Just as the temple was rededicated, those who observe Hanukkah also rededicate themselves to the Lord. As the shamash is used to light an additional candle each night after sundown, many families spend that time of about 30 minutes in quiet reflection.

The Arthurs — their other two children at home are 13-year-old Nathanael, who had his bar mitzvah in August, and less-than-a-month-old Rebekah — usually spend that time around their kitchen table reading a passage from the Old Testament followed by a discussion.

Copen and his wife, Ginger, will “darken everything in the house and just sit and watch the candles.” It’s an ideal time to shed the fast and furious pace of life and focus on God with your family, he said. “Sometimes, it takes me half of those candles before I can get my mind to concentrate on God,” comparing it to a vacation where a person needs the first day or two to forget all that happens at the office. When the point arrives where he can zero in on God, “it’s marvelous, it’s beautiful,” he said.

Steve and Maureen Barack help their two children learn that lighting each candle is a reminder that God calls them to be the light of the world and to keep the hope of Christ alive. It’s a spiritual meaning to the holiday that Steve Barack said he didn’t realize until he accepted Christ as Messiah 16 years ago. He and his wife have embraced Messianic Judaism for the last nine years.

Most Jews in today’s secular society don’t make the connection with the spiritual significance behind Hanukkah, Barack said, just like most gentiles cast aside the religious meaning of Christmas. But he has learned as a Messianic Jew that God has fulfilled what he has promised. “He’s made a place for us to have a very close relationship with him. And that’s what Hanukkah means to me.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.com. Photo title: HANUKKAH.

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  • Michael Leathers