Festival of lights offers lessons in life to those who are struggling – NorthJersey.com

Posted By on November 30, 2021

8 objects tell the story of Hanukkah

The items for sale at The Judaica House Ltd. in Teaneck are more than holiday gifts. They tell the story of the season

Jim Beckerman, NorthJersey.com

The eight-day festival of lights beginning Sunday night is a celebration of spiritual freedom that marks the triumph of a small underdog band over a mighty army.

But for Rabbi Michael Perice, the message of Hanukkahstrikes deeper than that of an unlikely military victory thatoccurred more than 2,000 years ago in the land of Israel.

The holiday commemorates the power of a shredof light to overcomeimpenetrabledarkness, and isabout "overcominganoppressor against all odds throughbelief and hope," said Perice, who serves as rabbi at Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson.

When it comes to beating the odds, Perice has firsthand experience.

Ten years ago, he was anopioid addict desperate for a fix.He called his regularsuppliers for OxyContin, but the only person who responded dropped off a bag of heroin, a substance Perice had nevertried.

And that's when Periceunderwent what he now describes as a spiritual experience. "I was given an opportunity to make a choice," Pericesaid, knowing that if he used the contents of the bag, he would die.

He flushed the heroin down the toilet and called his parents for help. The next morninghe was in treatment. And that's how he ended his four-yearbattle with drugsand started on the road to freedom.

This past summer, Perice opened up tohis flockabout his struggle with addiction. His aim was to illuminate the darkness, much like the menorah that Jews light each night of Hanukkah.

"I wanted to share my story because I knew it could save lives," he said, adding that he hoped to cultivatea spirit of trust and transparency with his congregation.

"If people see that a rabbi can share his story of addiction, thenmaybe they will realize that it's nothingto be ashamed of."

"There are so many people grappling with this problem in secrecy," he said. "They're actinglike itisn'ta Jewish thingand that's not goodbecause it keeps people from getting the help they need. Addiction is a disease."

The ensuring whirlwind has beenmind blowing, he told NorthJersey.com in an interview. Congregants, friends and even strangers from around the globe who heard about his journey havecalled, emailed and wrote heartfelt letters of support.

Some people said his honesty inspired them toopen up about their own addictions. One woman said she wished her son, who died from a drug overdose several years ago, could have met him. "Maybe he would still be alive today," she said.

Hanukkah means "dedication" in Hebrew and refers to the re-dedication of the Temple following the desecration by the Syrian-Greeks. The story dates back to around 164 BC, when the Syrian-Greeks who governed Israel banned Jews from observingtheir religion and defiledthe Temple in Jerusalem.

The Maccabees revolted against thepersecution. Defying theodds, theydefeated the mighty Syrian-Greek army and reclaimed their Temple. But when they sought to re-light the menorah in the Temple, they found only enough purifiedoil to keep it burningfor one day. According to Jewish tradition, the oil remainedburning foreight days, long enough so that they could obtain additional oil.

For most of Jewish history, Hanukkahhas been considered a minor festival.

In modern times, the holiday has seena surge in popularity that many attribute to its proximity on the calendar to Christmas.Butthe central themes of Hanukkah have mass appeal, even to thosewho don't typicallyobserve Jewish rituals.A key tenet of the holiday is the struggle for freedomagainst the dark face of oppression and the quest to express one's political and religious identity.

Anothermessageof the holiday which is celebrated by lighting the menorah, reciting special prayers, and eating fried foodsis that even thesmallest light can dispel darkness.

For those in recovery, the themes of Hanukkah resonate.

"It offers a powerful symbolism," Pericesaid. "That tiny bit of oil lasting for eight days reminds us that we can have reserves in ourselves that can give us enough strength to carry us through even if we don't think we have what it takes."

"The Maccabees teachus that you can overcome any oppressor as long as you have supporters," said Perice. "We can overcome anybad forces in our lives. We just need to believe in ourselves. That's a great message for us to remember."

Spirituality can behelpful in breaking the cycle of addiction, experts say. Studies by the National Institutes of Health have foundthat religion promotes resilience in long term sobriety and those with a religious or spiritual affiliation are less likely to use drugs.

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Rabbi Avi Richler of Gloucester County, who runs The Shoova House, sober homesin South Jersey to assist people in recovery from substanceabuse, and who serves asa spiritual adviser at several New Jersey drug treatment programs, noted that the principles of Judaism can help in the recovery journey. "When you look at the journey of recovery it's all about accountability, mentorship and a personal relationship with God. These are all Jewish ideas."

Many people connect Hanukkah's taleof overcoming adversity with their own personal battle with insurmountable demons. "It's an inspiring story for anyone who feels alone and small in the face of mighty armies," he said.

Perice grew up in a Reform Jewish familyin Cherry Hill. After celebrating his bar mitzvah at age 13, he became disillusioned and left Jewish life.

He became addicted to drugs in college after he was injured in a 2007 car accident. A doctor prescribed him with painkillers and Pericekept needing higher doses to cope with his back pain.

While he was in recovery, Perice's life took a more spiritual turn. Hebegan thinking more deeply about his religion.

"I was barely a practicing Jew at the time. I couldn't imagine that my life would ever go in this direction," he said, explainingthat for him, a career in the rabbinate at that time was about as likely as one in the NFL. "It shows that overcoming addiction opens up the world in so many possibilities."

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During his recovery, he worked at his family's funeral home in Philadelphia, where he developed close relationships with several rabbis, sparking his interest in Judaism. "I realized I had been searching for meaningand purpose in my life," he said.

"Reconnecting with my Judaism and my faith helped me build a foundation for which to grow," he said. "Being a part of a community and thisancient tradition grounded me in a way that brought much neededpeace in my life."

He enrolled in ReconstructionistRabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania in 2014and was ordained in 2020. He joined Temple Sinai in July 2020.

The story of the Maccabees, he said, is the story of anyone who is trying to achieve an impossible dream.

"We have more resilience than we think," he said. "Where does it come from? For Jews, itcomes from our tradition. We see the struggles of our ancestors, knowing that time and time again we have defeated the most destructiveforces."

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives,please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email:yellin@northjersey.com

Twitter:@deenayellin

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Festival of lights offers lessons in life to those who are struggling - NorthJersey.com

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