Hanukkah and Soviet Jewry


This lesson reviews the theme of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, as a metaphor for hope in the face of darkness.

Like the Jews in the days of the Maccabees, the Jews in the Soviet Union were also prohibited from studying Torah and practicing their Judaism.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore the themes of hope and inspiration embedded in the Hanukkah holiday.
  • Draw parallels between the story of the Maccabees and the plight of Soviet Jewry.


1. Text Study: Have students read the text on the source, written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for the OU.

2. Guided Discussion: Lead a classroom discussion, connecting the themes of the text to the holiday of Hanukkah. Ask students:

  • How was life for Jews under Alexander the Great similar to life for Soviet Jews?
  • What do we learn from the Maccabees?
  • Why did the Maccabees bother to search for oil? What do we learn from this?
  • What remains today from the suffering of Jews in the FSU? Why did Soviet Jews begin to seek a new life in Israel in 1967?
  • According to Rabbi Sacks, how did Gorbechev become part of the Hanukkah story? Do you agree?
  • What is the Jewish response to a tragedy, according to our history?
  • How is the tradition of lighting candles a logical response to remembering a tragedy
  • Why do Shabbat candles take priority over Hanukkah candles?
  • Why did some communities want to stop celebrating Hanukkah?
  • How are the words in Hatikvah a reflection of the fact that we still celebrate Hanukkah, Pesach, Yom HaShoah, etc?
  • Why do some people light Hanukkah candles outside?
  • How does the way in which we light Hanukkah candles inspire us to make the world better?

3. Conclusion: Have students listen to the Hanukkah song, “Light One Candle” by Peter, Paul, and Mary here. Then, discuss:

  • How do the words relate to the Hanukkah story?
  • How do they speak to the experience of Soviet Jews?

4. Optional Extension

Younger Students: Students can decorate the blessings sheet and create notecards with inspirational thoughts to share for each night of Hanukkah.

Older Students: Students can research and create their own list of inspirational thoughts to share each night of Hanukkah.

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