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Chanukah in the Time of Covid

Pandemic restrictions challenge Chabad to innovate, bringing the joy of Chanukah to record numbers

In line with local COVID guidelines, Chabad communities around the world will be giving the 2,215-year-old traditions of Chanukah a 2020 twist. With cases rising once again in the USA and around the world, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of Chabad-Lubavitch Educational and Social Services Divisions said, in a statement released on Lubavitch.com, that adherence to local health and safety guidelines will be strict, but Chabad representatives are working creatively to make this a joyous Chanukah. 

“Torah values the sanctity of life above all else. Where the usual Chanukah celebrations are not possible, Chabad is innovating to bring the light and joy of Chanukah to every Jew while preserving the health of all involved,” he said.

So a hot air balloon chocolate gelt drop, virtual menorah lightings, Chanukah parties-in-a-box, an LED Chanukah truck, and drive-in events will replace the usual capacity crowd Chanukah parties, heritage night sports games, and Chanukah on ice revelries.

Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad Lubavitch at the North Shore in Boston, Massachusetts, is among those who have decided not to conduct any in-person events this year. Instead he, and his three satellite communities will live-stream public menorah lightings and invite all community members to join in lighting their menorah at home simultaneously. “We don’t see it as shutting this place down, but opening up so many other places, every single home of every single worshiper as an extension of our synagogue,” he said. 

Chabad shluchim from Arkansas to Wales, Slovakia to Aruba mailed out tens of thousands of Chanukah packages, containing menorahs, candles, chocolate gelt, dreidels, recipes, games activities, and Chanukah literature. In a bid to spread the celebration beyond Chabad’s immediate contacts, Chabad Young Professionals, CTeen (Chabad’s teen network), Jewish Online School, and The Mitzvah Society have distributed thousands of menorahs to “ambassadors” who pass it on to a Jew at their school, place of work, or in their neighborhood.

Others have scheduled additional menorah lighting ceremonies that will allow for smaller groups while still giving everyone a chance to participate. In Northern California, 37 Chabad communities have joined forces to host the NorCal Virtual Chanukah Live. The one-hour program will feature a live concert, greetings from celebrities and public figures, and menorah lightings around the area, including at the Golden Gate Bridge and the State Capitol. In England, sixty communities are joining for a similar program. 

Similarly, organizers of the usually well-attended Menorah At The D celebrations in downtown Detroit, a project of various local Chabad centers, are asking people to stay home and watch via live stream. They will hold an in-person Parade Of Light And Love where participants, some with menorahs mounted on their cars, others festooned with lights, and Chanukah decals will drive past some of the city’s senior residences. “The elderly are among those hardest by COVID since they can’t have guests or congregate. Many haven’t left their residences since March. We want to bring Chanukah joy and light to them,” said Rabbi Schneur Silberberg, outreach director at Bais Chabad Torah Center.

Though Menorah parades are a familiar Chanukah fixture in some larger Chabad communities, there is an uptick in the number of parades and participants, as many take advantage of this COVID-safe Chanukah celebration for the whole family. Some will be flanked by police escorts, others will end at drive-through Chanukah carnivals, or concerts, all enjoyed safely inside the car. Chabad car-menorah manufacturers have been unable to keep up with the unexpected demand and are all sold out. A staggering 6,500 are expected to be on display at hundreds of parades.

One of those concerts, the 13th Annual Fire On Ice show at West Hartford Town Hall is a project of the Chabad communities of Greater Hartford. As in the past, guests will watch an ice carver form a Menorah from a block of ice which will then be lit. Chassidic singing sensation Benny Friedman will perform live while participants watch on a giant LED screen, tuning their car radios to pick up the audio. “The menorah serves as a symbol of light and hope for us today amidst the darkness of the pandemic,” said Rabbi Shaya Gopin of West Hartford, one of the event organizers. The celebration has been moved to city hall this year– its open area and large parking lot can accommodate up to two hundred cars.

The Chanukah Truck is another 2020 innovation. Decked on all sides with LED screens showing Chanukah messages and videos, the trucks are being turned into a mobile Chanukah party. Those interested can book a time slot and the Chanukah truck will arrive outside their house equipped with music, and individually wrapped latkes, donuts, games, and all they need to host an outdoor, socially distanced Chanukah party for family or neighbors. “We knew we needed to think outside the box to bring Chanukah to our community, so we introduced this party-on-wheels, a multimedia celebration of light and life,” said Rabbi Zalman and Chaya Blecher of Chabad Lubavitch of Yardley, Pennsylvania.

As Rabbi Schneur Zalman Oirechman of Chabad Lubavitch of the Panhandle, based in Tallahassee, Florida, says, “Chanukah represents Judaism’s goal of shining hope into moments of despair. The story of a little light that triumphed and persisted against all odds serves as an inspiration for all as we struggle with all the obstacles with which we have been presented these last months.” His celebration includes a ‘Gelt Drop’ where chocolate gelt attached to mini parachutes will be released from a hot air balloon–a contactless, and fun way to distribute the sweet treats among the masked and socially-distance celebrants.

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