Most people know the main players when it comes to Hanukkah—menorahs, dreidels, latkes—and the condensed version of the story: Also known as the Festival of Lights, it’s a Jewish holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the larger Syrian army and the miracle that occurred when a day’s supply of oil kept the temple illuminated for eight days.
“I was thinking about all those things,” says Elissa Sachs-Kohen, rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville. “Powerful, religious, whatever it is—it’s the aspect of light in the darkest time. We’re choosing actively to celebrate even this small point of light…and, gosh, how much do we need that right now?”
As yet another holiday arrives during this pandemic year, families are still navigating new takes on their old traditions. “Back in March, we had to quickly pivot,” says Sharon Seigel, senior program director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, first with virtual programming, then in-person events where participants can drive-through or social distance while still feeling that communal aspect. For Hanukkah, they are planning online events culminating in an outdoor concert with pre-packaged latkes or sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) for guests.
“This isn’t a popular thing to say,” says Rabbi Jessy Gross Dressin, director of Repair the World Baltimore, a Jewish nonprofit that connects community members to volunteer opportunities, “but Hanukkah is not actually that important of a holiday in the grand scheme of the tradition.” (In other words, its proximity to Christmas has increased its profile.) But she does see the connection between the past and present. “Reorienting ourselves in times of great darkness and fear—that’s the Hanukkah spirit,” she says, encouraging her community to use this year as a spiritual challenge.
Instead of nightly gifts, families can volunteer locally, or, be it outside or via FaceTime, still gather with relatives to light menorahs. Find someone who lives alone and invite them to your virtual celebration, says Dressin.
“Make it a challenge every night to increase someone else’s light, especially in a time where we feel like the light is getting dimmer,” she says. Schedule a Zoom dreidel competition with family members, or, to honor the significance of oil, have a frying contest, and not just for potato pancakes. “What about Oreos?” Dressin ponders.
In short, instead of being weighed down by another celebration away from loved ones—embrace it. A connection is a connection, even via technology. The idea is simple, says Sachs-Kohen, “How can we take the light from whatever virtual space we are in into someone else’s virtual space?”