Growing up in Kansas City, Kan., rabbinical student Elana Nemitoff thought becoming a rabbi was the last thing she’d ever do.
“My dad’s a rabbi, and I would watch him and say ‘No way am I doing this, I don’t want to and I wouldn’t be good at it,’” she said Friday afternoon, sitting in the library at Congregation Beth Aaron in Billings. “As I got older, I realized everything I did in my life had a Jewish spin to it, and I wanted to do Jewish things and learn more about Judaism.”
One thing led to another, and now here she is, a second-year student at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. The 25-year-old studies at the Los Angeles campus.
Student rabbis spend their first year of study in Israel. During the second year, they serve in the pulpit of a synagogue.
The pulpit at Congregation Beth Aaron came open earlier this year when three-quarter-time Rabbi Barbara Block left the state for another full-time position. Generally the student rabbi spends one weekend a month at the synagogue, but “I’m here about every three weeks,” Nemitoff said.
“Hebrew Union College is huge on experiential education,” she said. “If you’re not going to use what you’re learning, you don’t remember it, you don’t keep it.”
In Billings, Nemitoff meets with one of the Jewish inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison. She also makes home visits to congregation members who are sick or not able to leave their homes.
Nemitoff leads services, does a Torah study, teaches religious school and conducts other services. She also counsels members and lends them the help they need.
“I think that for them, having someone here is important, and I give them the face to go with their Judaism,” Nemitoff said.
She gets a stipend for the work she does, which she appreciates. But that’s not why Nemitoff is in ministry.
“I do this work out of love and because I’m called to do it,” she said. “I love being able to spread Judaism. I love being able to teach people and explore with them.”
This weekend, her focus will be on Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights. Its origins go back to the second century B.C., a dark time for the people of Israel.
The Syrians had invaded Israel, and they and the Greeks were trying to force the Jews to abandon their religion. In 167, the invaders desecrated the temple and knocked over the menorah, but all was not lost, Nemitoff said.
“The Maccabees, a small group of very religious Jews, fought against the Greeks who were led by Antiochus,” she said. “And even though they were small, they succeeded in winning.”
The Maccabees, led by Judah and his father, Mattathias, went into the temple and cleaned it up.
“When they went to light the menorah, to rededicate the temple, they found only enough oil to last for one night,” Nemitoff said. “But in fact the oil lasted for eight nights.”
Every year Jews celebrate Hanukkah to remember the miracle victory of a small band of valiant fighters over their oppressors and God’s miracle of the oil. This year, Hanukkah began the evening of Dec. 16 and will conclude the evening of Dec. 24.
A central component associated with the celebration is what most people call a menorah. But, Nemitoff explains, because the candelabrum has nine branches, with the central “helper” candle called a shamash, it is technically a chanukiah.
“We add a candle each night to increase the light and the joy that we get from Hanukkah,” she said. “So by the eighth night, the chanukiah is completely lit and we have brought all this joy into our lives.”
Families gather and enjoy traditions such as playing games with the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top. Gifts are given, especially to the youngsters.
Fried foods such as potato pancakes, also called potato latkes, and jelly doughnuts are cooked in oil and enjoyed. It’s one more way to remember the miracle.
A song is sung, recalling success in the battle. And then everyone says “Happy Hanukah.”
“Many families use it as an opportunity to be together and have a family meal and fried foods, and many families give presents,” Nemitoff said. “But it’s this idea of being together and being with family celebrating the beauty and light of Judaism.”