Hi, Nechama. Tell us a bit about the camps.
In 2001, we started a Jewish Girls retreat; we had both a summer and a winter camp. It was so wonderful that we wanted to sustain that amazing camp feeling and continue learning throughout the year. So, in 2015, we launched Jewish Girls Unite (JGU).
Q. What kinds of things does JGU do?
We have online programs, classes and contests. One example is the One More Light campaign. We wanted to teach girls to appreciate the gi that was entrusted to women and girls, the mitzvah of lighting Shabbos candles every week. We were inspired by the Lubavitcher rebbe, zt”l, who launched the candle Lighting Neshek campaign in 1974, under the direction of Mrs. Esther Sternberg, to encourage girls as young as three to light their own Shabbos candles. The rebbe famously said that the world needs more light because it is so spiritually dark.* A ame is unique in that it can light up another person, and that person can light up yet another person until the whole world is lit up.
In September 2015, we met with Mrs. Sternberg and launched the candle Lighting Writing contest. It was a contest for Jewish girls, regardless of age, a liation or location.
In 2016, we launched the Invite to Light challenge together with Mrs. Linda Schwartz of California in honor of her daughter Sivan’s bas mitzvah. We reached out to Jewish schools worldwide for girls to spread the word, to invite others to light Shabbos candles, too.
We announced the details on an inter-school broadcast before Rosh Hashanah. hundreds of girls joined in as we sang our theme song. As part of this program, we launched round two of the candle Lighting Writing contest, with the goal of publishing an anthology of some of the submissions by March 1, 2017.
Q. What kind of response did you get?
It was beautiful; we got hundreds of submissions, from girls all over the world, from as young as six years old and as far away as Australia.
As I was sorting through the submissions, I heard some terrible, heartbreaking news: on January 20, 2017, in Melbourne, Australia, a man purposely drove his car into the Bourke Street Mall, mowing down people, injuring dozens and murdering five people. Among them was a ten-year-old girl, Thalia Hakin, a student at Beth Rivkah. Everyone was horrified and devastated.
As I said, at that time, I was half a world away, collecting the submissions to the contest and compiling them into an anthology, a book to inspire women and girls about the mitzvah of candle-lighting. It occurred to me that I should review my e-mails from the previous two years for any submissions I might have missed. There I was, sorting, looking, reading… and suddenly I screamed.
There, as an attachment in her own handwriting, was Thalia Hakin’s beautiful submission. Even though she had sent it nearly two years earlier, in September 2015, somehow I had missed it — and only saw it for the first time just two days after her passing. I couldn’t believe it. Her words were beautiful. She’d written about finding strength in the dark times. her words were speaking to us while the Jewish world was reeling with shock at her untimely passing.
I understood the e-mail wasn’t meant to be seen until just that moment.
What did you do?
We contacted Thalia’s family and they were extremely touched. They agreed that Thalia’s words were something that they — and the rest of the world — needed to hear at this time.
That week, Thalia’s handwritten submission appeared on the front page of a local Jewish newspaper, inspiring readers across the country with her message. Rivka Leah Cylich, an extremely talented composer, musician and singer, was moved to set Thalia’s words to music.
Everyone needs to hear Thalia’s message — men and boys, too! Sure, Shabbos candle – lighting is a mitzvah that is primarily assigned to women, and it is a mitzvah where we immediately see the light we put in the world, but actually, all mitzvos light up the world. All mitzvos can be compared to a light, even if we don’t see it as obviously. Doing mitzvos is also a special way to give an aliyah to the neshamah of a departed loved one. It is a way to transform the dark feeling of loss into light that illuminates the world.
A person’s legacy after their death depends on those people still living. People who have passed away cannot do any more mitzvos themselves; their neshamos are depending on us to do mitzvos in their memory. So when we do a mitzvah in honor of Thalia, a”h, we’re giving her Neshamah an aliyah.
Q. How do you pass on that legacy?
You know, usually it can be uncomfortable approaching Jewish women to ask them if they light Shabbos candles, but when you share Thalia’s story and her love for Shabbos candles, most people’s hearts just melt and they are happy to take on a mitzvah in her memory.
Just last week, I was in Port Authority, in New York, and I was lost. I noticed a woman with children, so I asked her for directions. As soon as the woman started talking, I realized she had an Israeli accent. She was Jewish. I asked her if she lit Shabbos candles. She said no, she was too busy on Fridays. I told her that there was a little girl who had been killed recently, who had treasured this mitzvah and her legacy was to spread the light. Would this lady be willing to light Shabbos candles with her daughters in honor of this girl? The woman agreed, but she was concerned that she might forget. I told her not to worry, I’d take her name and phone number and remind her every Friday. She said, “Okay. My name is Tal.” Of all names! Just like Thalia.
And you never know what might happen now. Many Jews have been inspired to grow in their observance after making a commitment to light Shabbos candles. Shabbos is often the opening, the first initial spark that ignites a person’s soul. It’s Shabbos candles that somehow remind us every week, “I’m Jewish; I carry on the legacy of Sarah Imeinu.” And do you know, Thalia’s hebrew name was Sarah. From the legacy of Sarah Imeinu, whose special mitzvah was Shabbos candles, to Thalia’s legacy, the flames of our Jewish people are interconnected, always shining.
Q. When is Thalia’s song being released?
On March 1st, which will be a couple of weeks ago by the time you read this. That means Thalia’s song is out and about — you can hear it, learn it, sing it, share it, spread it around the world, pass on Thalia’s message.
At this point, the JGU Gala event is still in its planning stages. The highlight of the evening will be singing the song. This celebration will also be launching our newly published book, “One More Light,” which includes 150 selected submissions and a special page dedicated to Thalia.
Q. That’s beautiful. What else would you like to share?
When I share this story, I think the lesson is that anyone can make an impact, regardless of age. It is so important to share and inspire others with our words because words stick around. Look at Thalia’s words — they are timeless.