bob maginnis 12/14/00

December 14, 2000

Church program reminds us of freedoms

Through a coincidence of the calendar, the celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah overlap this year. And in a church on Hagerstown's West End, those who attend Sunday School at St. Mark's Lutheran Church on Sunday, Dec. 24 will get an insight into Jewish tradition, courtesy of Rabbi Rachmiel "Rocky" Tobesman.

Curious as to why a Christian pastor would open his church for an interfaith presentation on one of Christianity's holiest days, I spoke to Pastor David Kaplan, who told me that Tobesman's presentation, entitled "And There Was Light" is in no way a substitute for St. Mark's traditional Christmas Eve services.

Those will still be held at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. and at 11 p.m. But at 10:15 a.m., Tobesman will present an exhibit of up to 150 lights used in Jewish ceremones of all types, a collection that includes rare pieces from all over the world.


"The program we're presenting will show candles and candelabras to illustrate all the different ways lights are used in the Jewish religion," Tobesman said, adding that there'll be explanations of where the various pieces originated.

"We even have a piece that was smuggled out of Nazi Germany by an Amoco executive," Tobesman said.

Other pieces include a 300-year-old Russian candelabra and a set of candlesticks that were used in the concentration camps during World War II. The latter pieces, Tobesman said, were made so that they could be taken apart and hidden.

"A lot of it deals with Jewish history through the ages," Tobesman said.

But why the Lutheran church as the site for such a program?

"Pastor Dave and I have worked together, and he feels very comfortable with the programs I've brought into his church," Tobesman said.

In June 1999, Tobesman presented an exhibit on the Holocaust at St. Mark's. It included artwork done by concentration-camp prisoners, poetry written by imprisoned children and information on the White Rose Resistance, a little-known group made up of high school and college students who distributed literature and encouraged people to become conscientious objectors. All were executed by the Germans.

"That program was not only very well received by the congregation, but by the community as well," Kaplan said.

Other programs Tobesman has hosted at St. Mark's include one on domestic violence done from a scriptural perspective.

Of Tobesman's latest program, Kaplan said that for both religions, light is a common theme, even though Hanukkah and Christmas are not similar celebrations.

"Hanukkah is a political celebration and a remembrance of the rededication of the temple" after the Jewish people defeated their oppressors, Kaplan said.

Various sources tell the Hanukkah story, but the generally agreed upon facts are that in 165 B.C., following a three-year war, the Jews were finally able to defeat a Syrian oppressor named Antiochus IV.

The Temple of Jerusalem was liberated and cleared of the Syrian idols that had been placed there. But after the Temple had been cleansed, the Jews found only a day's supply of oil for the lamps.

But through a miracle, that one-day supply lasted for eight days. Then the Jewish leader, Judah Maccabee, proclaimed a festival to be observed by the Jews.

In the Christian tradition, Kaplan said, the gospels often speak of light penetrating the darkness, which can symbolize either political oppression or the darkness of the soul brought on by sin and oppression. And the Gospel of John, Kaplan said, speaks of Christ as "the light of the world."

If you haven't made plans for Christmas Eve morning, you might want to take time to visit the program, which begins at 10:15 a.m. at the church, located at 601 Washington Ave. For directions or other information, call the church office at (301) 733-7550 or (301) 797-9141.

For many who attend, the program will be a museum tour of sorts, a chance to look at devices used in worship services by people who've been dead for hundreds of years. But it should also be an occasion to reflect on how lucky are to live in a country where, by and large, people aren't killed because of their ethnic backgrounds, or their religious beliefs.

The residents of Israel - Jews and Palestinians - have no such certainty, nor do the people of Serbia or half a dozen African countries, where being born into one clan or another is still cause to be killed.

While we're planning our holiday celebrations, they're wondering when the next burst of violence will take another family member. That a Christian minister feels free to open his church to a rabbi is not only a testament to the generosity of his spirit, but also to this country, where the way we choose to worship is a way to affirm life, as opposed to a reason to cause someone's death.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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