Chanukah – modern miracles multiply

A child gazes into her mother's eyes. A heart beats a million times without faltering. Brothers separated by 50 years — and the Holocaust — find each other. Cancer cells disappear after a famous rabbi predicts their retreat. Young and old fall in love.

Some Bay Area Jews call those modern miracles.

And while they may not strike us like biblical manna falling from the heavens, some say today's miracles are as clear as the Red Sea divide — and as important to celebrate.

As Jewish Sunday school children around the world learn the story of the miracle of Chanukah this month, and light the first candle Sunday night, adults also have a chance to ponder life's miraculous moments. It's a chance, says Rabbi Amy Eilberg, that should not be squandered.

"Chanukah is a wonderful time to rededicate ourselves to noticing what is wondrous and blessed in the simple ordinary unfolding of our lives," says Eilberg, who offers spiritual care for the terminally ill through Ruach Ami, the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. "This is the key to a spiritual life."

For Eilberg, the idea that miracles happen every moment is no cliché but an essential truth that begins each day.

"Waking up in the morning, opening your eyes and seeing is a miracle. The fact that we get out of bed and the earth is still spinning — I can move my limbs, my heart beats, and a complex set of physiological processes happens during the night. Even when some things in my body aren't working, others are working perfectly. Miracles are everywhere," Eilberg says.

The rabbi admits she is casting "a much broader circle around the definition of `miracle'" than others might. She insists, however, that the miracle concept passed on to children is too narrow, that true miracles go beyond burning bushes and rivers turned to blood.

"The challenge of living a spiritual life is to stop and notice. I'm comfortable calling these things miracles: falling in love, when it really works, or looking into my daughter's eyes — when I can stop racing through the details of life," Eilberg says.

Comedian and pediatrician Stuart Silverstein also sees miracles in the faces of children — and in "every human function. I remember this every day when I can walk, and even when I can pee," he says.

The bicoastal doctor has more to appreciate than only those miracles: Over the years, he has helped hundreds of babies arrive in the world.

"Each time, I still marvel at how life comes into being. I'm also in awe at the physical pain women go through to give birth, and then they willingly go through it again. That is a miracle in itself."

Like childbirth, some miracles would impress even the most hardened Chanukah cynics.

In the life of Oakland Holocaust survivor Ernie Hollander, serendipitous events have been central and conspicuous. First, he survived a concentration camp, which seemed incredible enough, he says.

But in 1992, Hollander found his brother Zoltan after 52 years. They both thought the other was dead, but when Hollander appeared on "The Montel Williams Show," a syndicated TV talk show, an acquaintance of Zoltan Hollander's from Yugoslavia — where he was living and working as a printer — recognized Ernie Hollander, and the brothers were reunited.

That's just one in a series of events Hollander describes as miraculous.

His older brother, who was not allowed to stay in America permanently, returned to Serbian Yugoslavia. About three months ago, the 75-year-old needed heart bypass surgery, and was awaiting the operation at a hospital in Belgrade. Chances of survival were slim, says Ernie Hollander, because of the limited medical supplies in the city impoverished by economic boycotts.

While his brother awaited the operation, Ernie Hollander went to Oakland High School to discuss the Holocaust with students. He befriended a Yugoslavian exchange student in the audience, who, upon learning of Hollander's brother, revealed that her father was chief of surgery at the same Belgrade hospital where Zoltan was staying.

"She called her father right away," recalls Ernie Hollander, and the doctor was able to give his brother special care. "He never would have made it without those extras, antibiotics and penicillin."

Once again, Ernie Hollander finds himself saying, "It's a miracle that my brother is alive."

For one San Francisco woman, survival on city streets with her 8-year-old son seemed impossible. Over a year ago, the pair fled their home in another city to escape domestic violence, and ended up homeless and destitute in the Tenderloin.

And while a seedy hotel may have seemed like the lowest ebb in a life filled with fear, it was also the scene of what Anita Friedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Service, calls a "tiny miracle."

The Tenderloin hotel manager had heard of JFCS, and gave the Jewish woman the agency's phone number. Today, after job training and other social services, she is working as a computer technician and living in an apartment with her son.

"We have so many stories like this. Things that could not have been predicted, some chance encounter, something that appears to be a quirk of fate results in turning a hopeless situation into a hopeful one," she says.

Friedman adds that she and her staff have also witnessed "70 little miracles this year." JFCS aided 70 infant adoptions, and for each family, "finally getting a baby is like a miracle."

Stories of modern miracles also seem to surround the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who doled out dollars for tzedakah weekly from his Brooklyn, N.Y., headquarters. In fact, "To Know and To Care," a volume of Chassidic stories about Schneerson, is just one of several books devoted to such miracles.

For decades, Jews and non-Jews alike came to the rabbi for blessings and left with stories of miracles.

Painter and Russian Rabbi Chanoch Hendel Lieberman once went to Schneerson despondent over his seemingly terminal stomach cancer. Doctors told the man his condition was inoperable, but Scheerson insisted that if he found a doctor willing to operate on his stomach, the man would survive.

Schneerson was right, and the man lived for another 18 years.

His prophetic advice and blessings are said to have miraculously saved numerous lives.

Some see these fortuitous turns as coincidence, others as Divine Providence, but according to Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad in San Francisco, Schneerson himself saw miracles as God's response to acts of human kindness here on earth.

Langer agrees.

"Miracles happen when you tiptoe a little further beyond your self-confinement," he says. "As the rebbe instructed the world, if we just go beyond our nature a little bit, that is all that is necessary."

If "done collectively," he adds, such acts of kindness will bring the Messiah and "everlasting peace."

In the meantime, however, Langer contends that individuals who perform small acts of kindness today will "generate the flow from above."

Chanukah is a perfect time to challenge ourselves to do such mitzvot, Langer says.

"When you wake up, smile at your soulmate, be a little nicer to your partner. Do something out of the ordinary for your child. On the way to work, say hello to the bus driver, to the doorman, to the first person you see in the office. Bring your consciousness beyond your nature, into the realm of the miraculous, and God will give back the energy," he says.

"There is no question that those types of actions will beget the ability to create a miraculous light in the family. We have to start there."