Chanukah traditions reimagined but celebrations continue
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ChanukahChanging Chanukah celebrations

Chanukah traditions reimagined but celebrations continue

COVID-19 forces change to holiday commemorations

Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld lights the menorah at last year’s Chanukah celebration at the Waterfront. Due to COVID-19 concerns, large public holiday events have been put on hold until next year. Photo provided by Rabbi Yisroel Altein
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld lights the menorah at last year’s Chanukah celebration at the Waterfront. Due to COVID-19 concerns, large public holiday events have been put on hold until next year. Photo provided by Rabbi Yisroel Altein

The Chanukah menorah will burn just as brightly this year, although Jewish organizations and families have been forced to rethink their celebrations, incorporating social distancing and virtual programming into their regular traditions.

“Things are much different this year,” said Rabbi Elchonon Friedman of B’nai Emunah Chabad in Greenfield. “Things have to be more intimate this year. People need the intimacy. You know, we lost the massive things this year, but they weren’t that important to life.”

Friedman, along with Chabad of Greenfield’s Rabbi Yitzchak Goldwasser, usually coordinates a large Chanukah event including a Grand Menorah Parade, organized by Chabad of Squirrel Hill’s Rabbi Yisroel Altein, through Greenfield and Squirrel Hill, culminating in a festival at the Waterfront in Homestead attracting hundreds of attendees.

Instead, the rabbis have planned several different events to fill the void of a large community celebration.

On Thursday, Dec. 10, the first day of Chanukah, rabbis Friedman and Goldwasser, in conjunction with more than 15 other Jewish institutions, hope to have 1,000 families — the limit set by Zoom for streamed events — light their menorahs simultaneously.

“It’s going to be about doing it from home but feeling we’re all together,” Friedman said.

The virtual menorah lighting will be followed by public events Monday, Dec. 14, and Tuesday, Dec. 15, at Summerset at Frick Park, and on Murray Avenue in front of B’nai Emunoh, which will be closed to traffic. All in-person events will follow social distancing and face mask regulations.

The retooled public celebrations will include the annual menorah car parade, a Chanukah truck featuring an LED screen playing holiday-themed videos, a fire juggler, individually wrapped treats, a raffle and menorah lighting.

The Grand Menorah Parade will begin at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at Rodef Shalom Congregation, concluding at Chabad of Greenfield where those interested can partake in the celebration and menorah lighting, Altein said. Anyone interested in watching the parade can do so from a safe distance.

“We want to be able to connect with people and bring them the warmth of Chanukah,” Altein said. “The car parade is one of the safest things we can do because no one gets out of their cars.”

Those participating in the parade are asked to include a menorah or other Chanukah decorations on their car, making them identifiable to other drivers who may otherwise think they’re caught in a traffic jam created by a group of slow-moving cars.

“It’s very clear that this year’s needs are very different than a typical year,” said Goldwasser. “Nevertheless, we’re trying to make sure that every family can celebrate Chanukah in a way that is comfortable for them.”

B’nai Emunoh Chabad will deliver 400 holiday-themed bags to those who will not be celebrating with the community at the public events. In addition, on Sunday, Dec. 6, families are invited to schedule individual appointments for “Chanukah Family Fun Day,” which will include crafts and doughnut decorating.

Chabad of Squirrel Hill is collecting menorahs and other Chanukah themed items so those who are homebound will be able to celebrate the holiday.

The popular annual South Hills Lights event hosted by Chabad of the South Hills also has been modified to meet the health mandates of COVID-19.

Instead of an open-air festival held in the center of Dormont, Chabad will be utilizing the borough’s swimming pool parking lot for a special Chanukah drive-in on Thursday, Dec. 10.

“We want to get everyone together in a very safe way,” said event coordinator Mussie Rosenblum. “People are going to drive in. They’re going to get individually packed food — latkes, gelt, donuts, drinks, some activities for the kids.”

As if they were at a drive-in theater, attendees will tune their radios to a predetermined radio frequency and hear the audio portion of a multimedia event projected on a large screen.

“There will be a video, an interactive game, different things on a screen for people to enjoy,” Rosenblum said.

The event will culminate with the lighting of a giant menorah.

Chabad of the South Hills had planned a few other activities, including fire jugglers and entertainers, but the borough expressed concern because of the virus and asked that they scale back the event, according to Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, director of Chabad of the South Hills.

Everyone is invited to attend, but only 40 cars will be able to view the screen because of space limitations. Interested families can register for the event on Chabad of the South Hills website.

While Jewish organizations have been forced to alter their plans to celebrate Chanukah, so have local families. Some are planning creative ways to continue their traditions, despite the restrictions of a pandemic.

Temple Emanuel of South Hills and Temple Ohav Shalom member Naomi Podolsky Herman and her husband, Paul, will not have their usual Chanukah meal and celebration with their combined seven children and 18 grandchildren. Instead, Herman will be cooking and delivering latkes, apple sauce, gelt, cookies and gifts to their four children in town and mailing gifts and cookies to those who live in other parts of the country.

Like so many others, the family will share lighting their menorahs over Zoom.

For Herman, it is important to keep familial traditions centered around the holiday, despite the interruption caused by COVID-19.

“It’s the family being together, the acknowledgment of the holiday,” Herman said. “It’s making the holiday special at a time we can’t be together physically. This is what we do, we eat, we celebrate, we share the story of Chanukah.

“The Maccabees won the war and rededicated the temple and were able to thank God for the victory. This is an opportunity to think about that.”

Despite — or perhaps because of — the virus, the message of Chanukah will shine through for the Jewish community, said Chabad of the South Hill’s Rabbi Rosenblum.

“It’s a festival of light and it’s where we light the darkness,” he said. “What other year is it more important to celebrate the message of Chanukah and bring light to the dark, to realize that darkness does come to us sometimes but it’s up to us to celebrate the message of Chanukah and to bring light and be optimistic and hopeful? If we can figure out a way to do it safely and bring people together it’s the best possible way to celebrate it.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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