The Jewish connection to Israel goes back millennia, all the way back to Creation itself. Adam and Eve were formed there, and after the great flood of Noah, Noah's son Shem - the ancestor of the Jews (the term antisemitism, i.e. being anti the descendants of Shem/Sem, was a term coined in Germany in the 1800's for anti Jewish sentiment) - was given the Land of Israel to reside in. The seven fathers and mothers of the Jewish people dwelt there and the entire Jewish people returned there after two centuries of slavery in Egypt.

There is much history to speak of in that regard, yet when speaking about ancient Jewish history in Israel there are generally two eras: The first Beit Hamikdash (temple) and the second Beit Hamikdash. Although there were many centuries of Jewish history in Israel when neither temple stood (e.g. the period of the leadership of Joshua, the Judges, the reign of King David, the Purim story and the post second Beit Hamikdash period of Roman conquest), nevertheless, those two sacred structures dominate the long history of our people in the Land of Israel in the ancient world.

That said, there is a third, much lesser known special structure that existed in the third century BCE, a sacred sanctuary with a fascinating history. And this Jewish holy place wasn't even in Israel! It stood, for two centuries, in Egypt of all places.

Its story began shortly after the Greek conquest of Israel, 2336 years ago, under Alexander the Great. Alexander had a very positive relationship with the Jews, and their venerated leader at the time, Shimon Hatzadik (the righteous). Shimon was the High Priest in the second Beit Hamikdash. When Shimon passed away, he wished for his younger son, Chonyo, to succeed him as High Priest and spiritual leader of the Jews. Nevertheless, Chonyo deferred to his older brother, Shimi was his name, and offered him the job out of respect. When Chonyo later regretted his decision, going against his late father's wishes, it was too late. Shimi was already established as High Priest.

So Chonyo did something unprecedented. He traveled to Alexandria, Egypt, and built a sanctuary there, in some ways even resembling the original Beit Hamikdash which still stood in Jerusalem, both in design and function. He became the spiritual leader there, with many others assisting him. This magnificent Jewish holy place in Egypt stood for two hundred years, serving the large Jewish population of Alexandria and Egypt at large.

As you might imagine, this raised many eyebrows and was a topic of debate not only while it stood, but for over a millennia afterwards as well. There were other stories of disgruntled Jewish leaders who attempted to create sanctuaries for selfish grandeur, and were understandably avoided by the Jews afterwards.

What's interesting to note is the immense respect Jewish thinkers and spiritual leaders throughout the ages - both those who agreed and disagreed with Chonyo - had for Chonyo and his sanctuary. It seems clear that the Jews of the time realized that Chonyo was no fraud, rather a sincere individual who was up to something positive. Chassidic thought goes so far as to say that Chonyo's house of worship was uniquely holy, and a step toward the messianic age.

Why, one may ask? Great question.

One clue was dropped by the Jewish scholars of medieval France. In their commentary to the Talmud (Tosafot on Menachot 109B) these scholars write that in addition to serving the Jewish community, Chonyo's sanctuary also provided an opportunity for the non-Jewish nations of the world (most of whom, of course, were outside of Israel just like Chonyo's temple) to connect with G‑d. Although Jews worshiped there of course, it was precisely this unique point that made Chonyo's holy house so special.

We live in a world today where so many search for the ideal relationship between the Jewish people and the nations of the world. In a world where antisemitism is on the rise in too many places, whom can we trust? Is there still genuine good to be found out there?

To the first question, we trust in G‑d alone, as we always have. To the second question, of course there is! The world and the billions of people within it, each one special in their own way, has so much to offer. The world also craves genuine meaning, positivity, connection and light.

There is no greater gift which the Jewish people can offer to humankind than us standing proudly, unwaveringly and happily with our Jewish heritage, thereby reminding those around us of their own opportunity to live life to the fullest, as the Creator of all of us empowered us to. 

There's a reason why Torah and Mitzvot are compared to a candle. They can light up our lives in the most wonderful ways. But it goes much further than that. Like a candle, they can share light and warmth for everyone, encouraging people from every background, country or religion to discover their own inner light and connection with their Creator. Each in their own, unique way.

It was possible in Egypt two thousand years ago, and it's certainly possible today.

Rabbi Avrohom