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Tiny Sparks of Light – Yidden Haltsach!

Posted on Thursday, January 10, 2019 by Gidon Rubinstein

“There will be no triumph of light over darkness, as long as we do not recognize the simple truth, that instead of fighting darkness, we should increase the light.” A.D Gordon.

My grandfather Shmuel Mordechai Rubinstein, (but for me, he is dear Saba Shmuel,) after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust and making Aliyah, was approached one day by a stranger. The stranger said that Shmuel was responsible for saving his life while they were in Auschwitz. To my grandfather’s bewilderment he said that when they were all taken to forced labor for days on end with no food, shoes or coats and it seemed that all hope was lost, Shmuel kept gathering everyone together and saying firmly ‘Yidden Haltsach!’ (“Jews hang on!”). He continued, saying that those words of hope gave him the strength to keep going for another day and another and another. This lesson of brave Jewish leadership and the power of one person to make a meaningful difference, sometimes with as little as a word or two, is a strong part of who I am.

I have chosen to be a part of the Israeli Caucus Leadership team at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), alongside my talented partners: Sarah Hadar and Eli Hotovely, both Mid-Career MPA’s and Wexner Israel Fellows, Shai Kivity, a joint degree MPA with Wharton and  Shachar Brukner, a two-year MPP. The Israel Caucus is a student organization at Harvard, aiming to bring awareness to the strengths and challenges of the state of Israel through a broad perspective across the political, social and cultural spectrum. In our first strategy meeting at the beginning of the year, we discussed our goals and values. Among our questions were, What should be our focus? How should we address contentious subjects? Should we suggest a predominantly Israeli narrative or endeavor to entertain different approaches? How can our own culture and traditions be more relatable to our colleagues and why should they even care? And how do we surpass the incredibly high level of stimulation happening on campus on a daily basis?

As stated in the Sanhedrin, “From not for its sake, comes for its sake”, מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה, meaning that good intentions will follow good actions. We thought of ways to engage our diverse colleagues coming from more than 90 countries, numerous religions and extremely varied backgrounds, in creating a space to discuss all things Israel. I believe there is great power in the little things. A simple act of kindness, a smile, a word of encouragement, a sincere hug, making someone feel welcome no matter who they are or where they’re from. I believe in kindling these “tiny sparks” and fanning them into a flame. While some caucuses focus their efforts on an annual conference as a platform to show what their country is all about, we opted to lead many micro events, each displaying a different perspective of Israel. 

Throughout the semester so far, we have lit 15 of these “tiny sparks” across campus, some in cooperation with our friends at Harvard Hillel, Harvard Chabad and The Consulate General of Israel to New England. These events were attended by hundreds of Harvard students from Brazil to Pakistan, Ghana to Norway and Barbados to Syria. These included:

  • Making hummus with Gil Hovav, the Israeli chef and journalist, where he shared stories of the first ‘Hummus war’ and his own secret recipe.
  • Learning leadership lessons from Yariv Mozer, the director of “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue” followed by a screening of the film (with a ton of popcorn.)
  • Understanding women leadership and social change in a student session led MK Stav Shaffir.
  • Discovering what a leader is made of through creating our own self-portraits as leaders in an interactive workshop led by the artist Hanoch Piven. 

One innovative idea of “sparking light” in a more literal manner came to our minds this Hanukkah. We decided to approach the theme of light as a force for good, common throughout various religions and traditions, while making space for individual students to ‘own the process’ and create their own interpretation of this concept. #HKSspreadthelight was born. As in any successful plan, you have to start with the food, right? We ordered 400 sufganiyot from a local Jewish bakery and gave them out to students in the lobby of the new Wexner building at HKS, accompanied by a short account of Hanukkah and inviting them to join our photo contest. In this competition, students were asked to photograph their own interpretation of “spreading light” and upload it to Instagram. Photos we received included:

  • Hanukkiot and Christmas trees glowing side by side.
  • A short text comparing Hanukkah and Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
  • A transatlantic lighting of the Hannukiya via Skype submitted by a participant: “My parents live in Washington, DC, my brother lives in NYC, my sister and brother-in-law live in London and my partner was in San Francisco for the week for work  so we joined via FaceTime. This is how we remain interconnected and share the beauty of Hanukkah together through the power of technology.”

This March we are going to turn these sparks into a big flame as we plan to lead 120 Harvard students on the Israeli Trek, showcasing the beauty and the challenges of Israel. During this intensive week, we’ll expose our colleagues to geopolitics, security, society, minorities, economy, religion, high-tech, startups and food. A lot of food. From the Knesset in Jerusalem to the Muqata’a in Ramallah, Masada to the Golan Heights and from the Druze village of Maghar to Rothchild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, top speakers are lined up to provide this next generation of world leaders from HKS a rich impression of Israel.

In the apt words of Rav Harav Kook, “Every person must know and understand, that a candle burns deep within him, and one’s candle is not similar to his friend’s candle, and there is no one that has no candle. And every person should know and understand that one must strive to reveal the light of his candle publicly, and to make of it a great torch that will illuminate the entire world.”

In these days that may seem shadowy at times, I call you to re-discover the authentic, wonderful light of your own candle and encourage others to uncover theirs. Sometimes all it takes to flood the entire world with a brilliant light, is a little spark.

Wexner Israel Fellow Gidon Rubinstein (Class 30) can be reached here.