When the sun sets tonight, marking the start of Hanukkah and the 275th day since COVID-19 was declared a “global pandemic” by the World Health Organization, Jews across the globe will celebrate as never before.
“To make sure we can celebrate with each other next year, we have to do everything we can do to make each other safe,” Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Jonathan Aaron said.
The Jewish festival commemorating the Maccabees’ successful rededication of the temple in Jerusalem is symbolized by lighting a menorah to represent the miracle of oil used to light the temple menorah for eight nights – seven more than the one night the oil should have lasted.
Amidst physical distancing and other restrictions intended to save lives, this year families and friends will join together to celebrate this festival of light in creative ways, many centering around online opportunities. Aaron said that each night at 6:15 p.m., Temple Emanuel will hold a Hanukkah lighting on Zoom.
He emphasized that this year’s eight-night festival of lights – in addition to the Maccabees’ struggle for religious freedom serving as a powerful reminder for modern American Jews that they even have the ability to freely celebrate – offered a particularly poignant reminder of the need for people to reflect.
In adapting the story for today, Aaron likened the historic initial lighting of the candelabra to modern-day human beings taking the first steps to create a vaccine for the coronavirus, with God performing the miracle of achieving the vaccine.
In his Friday night service, Aaron said he will be asking congregants to consider what leaps they need to make this year to ensure they are maximizing their “light.”
“That first day is the miracle of human beings, it was their courage to light the candelabra,” Aaron said, characterizing the initial menorah lighting as a “leap of faith” to make things better. “What’s the leap I need to make that first night and have God join me in the miracle of the rest of it?”
Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Joel Nickerson emphasized the importance of the upcoming holiday, which is held during a period of the year with the least sunlight, in bringing light to the world.
“So many people are having dark moments,” he said. “How can we bring the light in our special unique way to the world around us? How can we spread that light, optimism and hope to the world around us?”
To safely celebrate during this time, Nickerson said the temple planned to do “eight crazy quarantined nights” with either socially distanced or online opportunities for the community to engage. On Sunday, Dec. 13, for example, the temple will host a drive-in concert, where families will have the opportunity to listen to live music from the safety of their cars.
For the upcoming Friday night service, Nickerson said he planned to speak about the idea of miracles and the history of vaccines.
“Our tradition figured out a way to take this miracle and put it as a sign of hope and optimism,” he said. “We should continue to believe in miracles and we should continue to find hope in a dark time.”
“This time of gift-giving is not just about about physical giving and giving toys, but what are the gifts we can give to the world and how can we harness that and how can we turn a corner … and maximize our own gifts,” he added.
In leading the upcoming Friday night Shabbat service, Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Max Chaiken said he plans to highlight how people can bring light to each other with their presence online.
“The story of the Maccabees is one of perseverance through hard times. That’s what we’re doing now and that’s what we’re trying to lift up and illuminate in the world,” he said. “I think the symbolism of light and bringing light into the world is an important aspect of the holiday.”
In addition to celebrating the light at home, Chaiken said the West Hollywood temple will offer ways for congregants to engage online, including a Hanukkah-themed cooking class on Saturday night.
For Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts Rabbi David Baron, Hanukkah offers Jews an opportunity to keep their commitment alive.
“I think the important message is what imbued the Maccabees to fight for freedom and that is the light of faith,” he said.
The holiday is also an opportunity for people to consider those who are less fortunate, he emphasized, and take action to help.
“This year, as families are grappling with the impact of this dreadful pandemic … we’re trying to find ways to stay safe, keep active and keep each other connected virtually,” Baron said. “Heritage teaches us the lessons of survival and resilience.”
Inside the home, opportunities abound to play dreidel games, light the menorah and celebrate with unique takes on recipes for using hot oil, such as traditional potato pancakes (essentially, flour, eggs and potatoes), blintzes (thin crepes made from flour, milk and eggs enfolding farmer’s cheese) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
In addition, several rabbis emphasized the importance of performing mitzvahs (good deeds) during this time, such as giving back to the community by supporting meal-delivery programs for the homeless and those in need.
Options abound for online engagement at all religious institutions as well as various locales throughout the city, which have pivoted online in response to the coronavirus.
In tandem with its 40th Anniversary Gala, the Sephardic Educational Center will hold a virtual Hanukkah candle lighting on Dec. 15. For information, visit sephardiceducationalcenter.org.
Hollywood Temple Beth El is offering multiple online events, including a “Shabbat Chanukah” followed by “Chanukah Jeopardy” on Saturday, Dec. 12, beginning at 10:30 a.m. Live streaming is available to the general public at facebook.com/htbel/live and on the temple’s YouTube page. On Dec. 17, the final night of Hanukkah, the temple will also host a group menorah lighting and musical sing-along on Zoom at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit eventbrite.com/e/8-lights-on-the-8th-night-of-chanukah-tickets-131306594559.