12/21/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Hanukkah's Lesson in Cultural Preservation

"Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?
In every age a hero or sage came to our aid."

We have just completed the holiday of Hanukkah, and are mindful that a core meaning of the holiday is a story about the power of a people overcoming terrible odds, and about the benefits of maintaining a communal identity despite widespread and even forced assimilation.

So it is striking that on Dec. 19, Native Americans from across the country gathered to celebrate the survival and successes of their own community in the face of extreme oppression and hardship. In an event led by Mark Charles, a representative of the Navajo Nation, members of a diverse multitude of tribes came together to publicly recognize and honor a formal apology offered by the U.S. Congress on behalf of the citizens of the United States to the Native American community for the generations of mistreatment and abuse they suffered.

This apology, included in the Department of Defense appropriations bill in late 2009, seeks forgiveness for the "many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States" and offers a "commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters."

The plight of a group that has been systematically oppressed resonates with us as Jews. As descendants of the Maccabees, we empathize with the excitement about and importance of maintaining and reclaiming a national and communal identity. But we also know that recognition is not restitution, and that apology is not action.

While we applaud the United States for taking responsibility for a dark element of its past, there is still work to be done. The rates of domestic violence among Native American communities are significantly higher than the national average, an issue that has been the subject of much focus as Congress works to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The 2005 version of the bill, which is still in effect and long overdue for renewal, contains a highly problematic loophole regarding the prosecution of non-Native offenders of domestic violence toward Native women: due to issues of tribal versus federal jurisdiction, the vast majority of these abusers go unpunished.

The Senate has passed a version of the Violence Against Women Act that would give tribal courts jurisdiction to oversee domestic violence offenses in these limited cases, thereby providing the structural legal power to properly prosecute these crimes. However, the version of VAWA that passed the House of Representatives does not contain these protections and the issue has become a sticking point. Congressional leaders are currently attempting to reconcile their two bills in time to take a final vote on VAWA before Congress adjourns for the year and all outstanding legislation is nullified.

If our Jewish history has taught us anything, it is that change is not achieved alone. Throughout our history, "in every age," we relied on God's help and the assistance and "aid" of those of conscience around us. Today, in this age, it is our turn to be that light for others. With the words of Hanukkah still echoing in our ears, we're reminded that we must not simply retell the things that befell us, but also recount and remember the tragedies that have befallen others. We can -- we must -- be that hero, be that sage that comes to the aid of our broader community.

Sarah Krinsky, an Eisendrath legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, also contributed to this piece.