Finding light amid the dark
Special to the Times
As December has settled in the Gunnison Valley, most residents are in the midst of preparing for various festivities that accompany the holidays: decorating, digging out holiday music and organizing gatherings of family and friends.
While most wait until the end of December for the festivities to begin, Congregation B’nai Butte launched the eight-day Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah on Tuesday, Dec. 12, with the first night’s lighting of the Hanukia — or Menorah, a candlebra with prongs representing each night of the annual celebration — outside the Brick Oven. Through Dec. 19, members of the congregation will meet nightly to continue the tradition of worship.
Hanukkah has been celebrated for thousands of years, but B’nai Butte has only been in the valley for 44 years — changing with the ebb and flow of the seasons and acquisition of new residents.
In the 1970s, B’nai Butte was founded by a group of Jewish families. They wanted to celebrate the many holidays in Judaism as well as educate kids in preparation for coming-of-age rituals, which include intensive study and preparation for entering the responsibilities of adulthood in the Jewish faith. The families also wanted to share Jewish customs, food, philosophical thought, education and traditions.
Over time — with the influx of many active second homeowners, new arrivals to the town and a renewed interest in finding out more about the congregation — B’nai Butte has grown. Though there is no clear number of how many members belong to the group, as it changes with the seasons, there are more than 200 members on the congregation’s mailing list, with members throughout the valley and country.
Over the years, B’nai Butte has had various rabbis and cantors as spiritual leaders. But it wasn’t until 11 years ago, when B’nai Butte was looking for someone new, that they gained their current spiritual leader, Rabbi Cantor Robbi Sherwin.
Sherwin was raised throughout the country on various Air Force bases as her father was active in the military. Growing up, she recalls living in small towns where her family would be the only of Jewish faith.
“It was very hard growing up being the only Jewish family, but we pushed through and grew very close because of it,” Sherwin stated.
Sherwin remained true to her faith and trained to be a rabbi — a spiritual leader who spreads the sacred law and philosophy of the Jewish faith — as well as a cantor — who studies sacred music. Sherwin has been a cantor for 20 years and a rabbi since 2014.
When Sherwin received a phone call from B’nai Butte saying they were looking for a new spiritual leader, she jumped at the opportunity. Sherwin was in cantoral school at the Rocky Mountain Clergy at the time, and after her interview she was called back and offered the position.
Sherwin is now the longest spiritual leader in B’nai Butte’s history. She commutes from Austin, Texas, but still finds time to educate others on the Jewish faith and has a very active schedule during Hanukkah.
Quite intentionally, Hanukkah occurs at a dark time of year and is celebrated in hopes of bringing light into a dark world. The history of Hanukkah stems to 70 CE, when the Assyrian Greeks destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem which was the seat of government, commerce and faith for the region. A band of Jews called the Maccabees cleaned up and then rededicated the Holy Temple — Hanukkah, in fact, means “dedication” — lighting the eternal lamp that burns steadily, representing God’s eternal presence.
The legend of a small cruze of oil lasting eight days came about 300 years later, as the rabbinic sages did not want a holy day that only commemorated a military victory. As a result, Hanukkah is now celebrated by eating foods cooked in oil. Members of the Jewish faith also give to charity, play games and enjoy their time with family and friends.
Some families also give gifts, but that is an American custom that was developed over the years. Though Christmas and Hanukkah are both celebrated in close proximity to the winter solstice, the holidays are not similar.
As B’nai Butte and Sherwin begin to celebrate Hanukkah, Sherwin says that what is most important is love of one another and spending time with family and friends.
To that end, Sherwin recalls a quote from her mother many years ago:
“It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s who you are.”