Jewish Congregation of Maui Returns to In-Person Gathering with Chanukah Celebration

Menorah lighting (pre-pandemic image). File photo courtesy of JCM

Holding the Space for All Things Jewish

“Judaism is an ever-evolving religion and we are a people of the great diaspora, 5782 years in the making, in search of a home in a torn world. Too much of our time, globally and locally, has been fractious and contentious as we label, and define and try to categorize who and what we are and what we are not. Conservative? Reformed? Orthodox? Secular?”

For the Jewish Congregation of Maui (JCM), the island is very much a home, a beloved one, and the congregation is seeking to remove all labels and provide a sense of inclusion and welcomeness while maintaining a distinctly Jewish identity.

Ellyn Mortimer is the executive director of the JCM, which was founded in 1991.

“We are the only truly inclusive and egalitarian Jewish community on Maui,” she said. There are approximately 2,000 Jews on Maui.

“Living a Jewish life means different things to different people, and we encourage everyone to follow their own path. This means that we are pluralistic, egalitarian, inclusive, and welcoming. We don’t use traditional labels to identify observance practices, we are all just Jewish together without judgement. I respect your Jewish life, you respect my Jewish life,” she said.

As with any group or religion, attempts to narrowly define and exclude people based solely on judgmental criteria can be painful.

“I got a call from a woman in tears because she was told by her Jewish community on a different island that she wasn’t ‘Jewish enough’ to be buried in their cemetery. I cannot even imagine. What does that even mean,” Mortimer asked rhetorically.

“I think it totally reaffirms what we are doing here. Other organizations can pretend to be welcoming, we actually are. We may not do it perfectly all the time, but it is our goal, and we are willing to work to make it happen,” she said.

How many members the JCM currently has, is measured in a new way now.

“We have a new model for this. Instead of a purely transactional membership model, everyone who makes a financial commitment to JCM is a member. There is a threshold for voting privileges and to sit on the board, but we want everyone to feel welcome and included. Membership sounds exclusive and that is the opposite of what we are doing,“ she said.

Mortimer said she sees her role as director to “hold the space for all things Jewish.”

She admitted it is not always an easy concept to see as a mission statement; but putting it into practice, she said, is gratifying.

“When I get to explain what we are doing to a new Maui family or someone coming in for a destination life cycle event, like a wedding, it is so satisfying to hear their incredulous response to what we are doing. I love it when they tell me they wish their synagogue was like ours. We feel very secure in what we are doing at JCM and we stand confident that equal and inclusive Jewish life is necessary on Maui,” according to Mortimer.

First Return to In-Person Gathering will be Celebration of Chanukah

After 18 months of virtual worship, including a limited high holiday gathering, Zoom events and calls and strictly obeying county directives on in-person gathering during the pandemic, it is very fitting that the first in-person gathering will be to celebrate Chanukah.

Chanukah, which begins Nov. 28 at sundown, is the festival of lights, an eight-day celebration and holiday that commemorates both a miracle and an unlikely uprising in which a tyrannical oppressor was defeated by Judah Maccabee and his followers.

Chanukah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, celebrates the sanctification of a newly built altar in the temple of Jerusalem.

After the Maccabees defeated their Greek oppressors they found that much of the temple including the altar had been defiled and used for idolatry.

There was precious little oil to be found and the miracle is that the oil lasted eight full days as the Maccabees rededicated and consecrated the holy temple and altar.

Thus, Chanukah is celebrated by lighting candles for eight nights, eating foods cooked in oil, notably latkes, or potato pancakes and playing with dreidels whose Hebrew letters form an acronym saying, “a great miracle happened there.” JCM will host a community Chanukah Party, Dec. 5.

“Chanukah will be our first big event (we shut down the day after our Purim party in 2020, and we are optimistic that people will want to attend the event and that they will happily comply with the rules that we set for social distancing, mask wearing while indoors, etc. Chanukah will be a fun and wonderful opportunity for us to be together again, and we look forward to welcoming all who are ready to gather and participate,” said Mortimer.

Search Underway for a New Rabbi

The JCM has not had a regular rabbi since David Glickman departed in 2019. Mortimer said candidates have been interviewed.

The organization’s decision not to seek any particular affiliation or strict parameters has made it tricky to find a rabbi.

The JCM is interviewing Rabbi Raanan Mallek in person soon and hopes to have a full time spiritual leader in place by February.

“Finding a rabbi who can provide actual equal access to everyone, not just say they believe in it, is not easy,” she said. “And it means we don’t have a network of rabbis. For example, if we identified as conservative, there would be a database and network. It also means that the rabbi needs to be flexible enough to be all things to all people.”

And the JCM is not immune from the housing crisis on Maui.

“We don’t have a place to house a new rabbi and rents are crazy here,” she noted. “We’re not picky, but we’re picky. It just has to be the right fit.”

Mortimer used the Yiddish word b’shert whose definition means means to be or inevitable in terms of a pairing.

“It has to be b’shert. We’re a small community with small funds and we spend our money wisely. It just has to be right.”

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