Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in Connecticut’s Jewish community say the themes of Hanukkah, which starts at sundown Thursday, are more relevant than ever.
In part, the holiday is about the “miracle of the light,” said Rabbi Brian Immerman of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden.
“More than ever, we need the hope … light gives us, and we need that to last longer than eight days,” he said. “We need it to last six, seven, eight months, until we’re all vaccinated.”
The “miracle of the light” references the story of a menorah at a temple in Jerusalem that remained lit for eight days on oil that should have lasted only for one.
“Hanukkah is all about the miracle of the little oil that lasted longer than it should have. For this year, that really, really speaks to me,” said Cantor Penny Kessler of the United Jewish Center of Danbury. “This has been a very difficult year. … We’ve really been looking for hope, we’ve been looking for just a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.”
For some, a “deep and debilitating” depression has set in this year, said Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht, who leads the Beth Israel Chabad of Westport/Norwalk.
“We’ve never faced such an overwhelming, all-encompassing challenge,” he said. “We have to gain our inner strength from the light. The message of Hanukkah today is much more relevant today than it was last year.”
The meanings of Hanukkah
The origin and themes of Hanukkah are more complex than the story of the long-lasting oil.
The holiday goes back to the second century B.C.E., when a Jewish family now known as the Maccabees led a rebellion in Jerusalem against the powerful Syrian Greek military, according to Kessler.
Antiochus Epiphanes IV, their ruler, had outlawed the practice of Judaism and taken over the Temple in Jerusalem, she said.
The Maccabees eventually prevailed, reclaiming the Temple and holding an eight-day dedication of it, she continued.
(Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew.)
“Notwithstanding the overwhelming odds against them, they did not lose their faith, they did not lose their hope,” Hecht said of the Maccabees.
To another theme of the holiday: “standing up for what we believe in,” as Immerman put it.
This year, it’s critical “to recognize that there are people who are continuing to suffer,” he said. “We really have a responsibility to stand up and take care of our community.”
According to Kessler, the story of the long-lasting oil did not come to be until some 600 years after the revolt, when the rabbis of the Talmud began discussing Hanukkah.
“(T)hey were unhappy with the idea of a Jewish holiday based solely on a military victory,” she wrote in an email. “So they developed the story of a tiny jar of oil that kept the candles in the Temple menorah lit for eight days when the oil should have burned out within 24 hours.”
How folks are celebrating
Hanukkah is not just especially relevant during a dark time, but its home-based rituals make it easier to celebrate in a pandemic than many other holidays, according to Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford.
“Because Hanukkah is so focused on overcoming supreme challenges and finding light in the midst of challenges, it’s perfectly situated to help us confront the challenges of now nine months of COVID. We know that better days are ahead,” he said. “And also because it’s so home-centric, it’s one holiday that can be celebrated without much change necessary to the normal practice.”
The menorah, for example, typically is lit at home.
And for some congregations, synagogues have gotten creative amid the pandemic and created new opportunities to celebrate.
Temple Beth El will hold a menorah-lighting over Zoom.
“We’ll be celebrating primarily remotely,” Hammerman said. “But that gives the opportunity for people to show their own menorahs on the Zoom screen.”
For the first time, according to Hammerman, there could be dozens of menorahs lined up on the screen.
Of course, some traditions will change.
Normally, Temple Beth El lights a menorah in the mayor’s office on the first night of Hanukkah, Hammerman said
They are forgoing the tradition this year because of COVID, according to the rabbi, who said a virtual lighting with Mayor David Martin will take its place.
Most years during Hanukkah, the congregation also holds a big dinner on the Sabbath, Hammerman said, but this year the synagogue instead will hold an outdoor tailgate party.
Hecht said the holiday may be difficult for grandparents who are used to seeing their families but may not feel safe gathering.
But still, the faithful will be celebrating.
The synagogue will hold a socially-distanced outdoor menorah lighting at Norwalk City Hall, slated to take place Thursday at 5 p.m. A lighting there has been taking place for the past couple of years, Hecht said.
While they will not be able to give out latkes due to the pandemic, Hecht said, they will be distributing dreidels, Hanukkah cookies and more.
Meanwhile, Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden has for the first time constructed a large outdoor menorah, where it is safer to gather. Folks will attend a lighting each night of Hanukkah, Immerman said.
Everyone will be invited to join on some nights, while other nights will be designated for groups of people who may only be comfortable in limited numbers, he said.
A nearby congregation, the Chabad Jewish Center of Hamden, will hold a drive-in menorah lighting at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, according to a release. The event, set to take place at Hamden Marketplace, will feature a laser light show.