From “Vodka & Latkes” to “Chanuplex,” Reform congregations are shining a creative light on Chanukah.
These days, in most synagogues, the festival rooted in the miraculous liberation and rededication of the ancient Temple is a low-key affair limited to a menorah-lighting during a regularly scheduled Shabbat service.
But not everywhere. Some Reform congregations are engaged in a new spin on the Festival of Lights.
Latke-thons & Class Candle-Lighting
Wanting “to fill the void of worship that was left by families feeling that home was the only place to celebrate, we created a series of celebrations and activities that would bridge home and synagogue traditions,” says Jason Nevarez, assistant rabbi of Congregation Shaaray Tefila in Bedford, New York. For 2008, the temple’s high school youth group is planning a first-time event called the “Latke-thon,” preparing hundreds of potato latkes in the temple’s kitchen and promptly delivering them to homebound congregants.
For the past several years, parents are invited to a religious school class candle-lighting using chanukiot that the students make in class. Each grade holds its lighting ceremony on a different day, and the class lesson incorporates a different theme of the Chanukah story. “For the smaller children,” explains Rabbi Nevarez, “we focus mainly on the story itself, the notion of how miracles can come out of everyday objects like oil and candles. We help older children think about ways they can bring more light into the world, such as collecting food for a local shelter.”
Kesher, Vodka & Latkes
Chanukah-related social justice and mitzvah projects also bring congregants from home into Temple Shaaray Tefila on New York City’s Upper East Side. Rabbi Marci Bellows leads the “Kesher” program, in which nearly one hundred congregants prepare holiday packages comprised of a chanukiah and candles, potato pancake mix, gefilte fish, and a sweet Chanukah dessert for needy and housebound Jewish seniors in the community. Participants in the Kesher program deliver the packages and often stay and chat with the recipients, helping them to celebrate the holiday as part of a community. The temple’s 20- and 30-something Young Professionals group donates pajamas and storybooks to a local children’s charity at the temple door before their annual “Vodka and Latkes” Chanukah cocktail party. And this year the holiday party is taking on a new twist, with congregant and Jewish chef Julian Medina instructing the younger generation in the art of Chanukah cooking.
A number of congregations encourage members to bring their home menorahs into synagogues for shared chanukiah (menorah) lighting and connection. At Temple Or Rishon in Orangevale, California, the menorah-lighting follows a congregation-wide Shabbat dinner. “Not only do we get to share in the lighting,” says Lisa Maisel, the congregation’s Outreach fellow, “but we also see a variety of menorahs, from traditional to homemade to modern.”
And a year ago, to add to the excitement, Or Rishon added a menorah-making contest open to everyone, “from the tiniest of tots to family collaborations,” says Maisel. Everyone then brought their homemade menorahs to the sanctuary, the overhead lights were dimmed, and nearly one hundred individual menorahs were lit, including the temple’s own six-foot-tall chanukiah. “All of these elements together,” Maisel says, “made us feel very relaxed and at home within our temple family.”
Every Chanukiah Tells a Story
At Temple Shalom in Lafayette, Louisiana, religious school students are invited to bring a chanukiah from home and tell its history before lighting the candles. “The children speak about chanukiot brought from all over Europe, South America, Israel—by parents, grandparents, and other relatives,” says longtime member Betsy Hoover, “sharing the story they’ve learned of their chanukiah’s journey, and its meaning to them. It’s always an awesome day at our temple.”
“The Greatest Chanukah on Earth”
Sometimes it takes a bit of hype to energize a congregation at Chanukah time. Members of Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Arizona bill their celebration “The Greatest Chanukah on Earth!” “We’re very modest about it,” jokes Outreach coordinator Mila Anderson. “But everyone participates—the preschool kids sing songs in dreidel costumes, and our religious school kids, the youth choir, teen choir, adult choir, and rabbis all perform a skit that offers a modern take on the ancient Chanukah story. Last year our associate rabbi did a hilarious Chanukah rap. And every year our impromptu drama club, involving players of all ages, tells the story of Chanukah in a different way. We dressed up as pirates one year, football players the next.”
At the end of the one-hour show, Anderson says, “we turn down the lights and everyone lights the menorahs they brought from home. Then we serve a brisket dinner, followed by a Chanukah fair for the kids with arts and crafts, clowns, and games.” More than 600 people attend the show, and about 275 stay for the dinner—a great success, and that’s no hype.
Central Synagogue in Rockville Center, New York has invented its own multifaceted celebration, titled “Chanuplex.” Throughout the day, explains congregant Peter Levy, “the synagogue hosts a Chanukah coffee house/café with music for members in their twenties and thirties, cooking classes on preparing both traditional and modern Chanukah cuisine, and educational workshops on the historical and biblical elements of the Chanukah story.”
Some congregations view Chanukah as a mitzvah opportunity which extends beyond the Jewish community. At Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, New York, each religious school class “sponsors” a family in need, donating food, money (raised through such tzedakah projects as the holiday bake sale and book fair), and gifts (including dreidels and gelt). In addition, each student contributes at least one personal gift he’s/she’s received for the holiday. “It is really important that we incorporate an element of social action in our celebrations at the temple,” says Larchmont Temple’s associate rabbi Mara Nathan, “so our students put into action the mitzvot they are learning about.”
“It is this last activity—education—that anchors the festivities to Chanukah’s essence,” adds Rabbi Nathan. “The root of the word Chanukah comes from the Hebrew chanuk—meaning education and dedication.”
Each of these congregational celebrations is bringing renewed light to Jewish life.
Andi L. Rosenthal, a freelance writer, is a member of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, New York.