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Hanukkah brings light to Jewish community amid global pandemic

Each year, Temple Beth El’s youth group in Riverside gathers in the home of one of its members to package gifts for those in need, have a holiday dinner together, recite special prayers, sing Hanukkah songs and light the menorah, a candelabrum that is lit each night during the eight-day celebration.

But this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, they will celebrate virtually, said Carolee Jaspan, a long-time temple elder who has guided the group. They’ll donate online to groups that help the homeless and those in need.

“We will still light Hanukkah candles, sing songs, spin the dreidel, and talk about our history,” she said. “We’ll still see each other. It’s amazing to me that with the pandemic and with stay-at-home orders, we are still able to have our holidays and religious rituals, and practice our faith.”

Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights, which commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C., when Jews rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, and is celebrated with fried foods in honor of a miracle when a small jar of oil to light the menorah at that temple is said to have lasted eight days.

A 9-foot-tall menorah is lit during a drive-in Hanukkah celebration organized by Chabad of Los Alamitos and Cypress the evening of Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in a parking lot in Los Alamitos. The synagogue usually holds a menorah lighting ceremony on the beach in Seal Beach, but resorted to the drive-in celebration this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of

Staying connected

More than 2,000 years later, Southern California’s Jewish community carries on that indomitable spirit, working amid a pandemic to keep alive tradition, history, culture and most importantly, the joyful, communal feeling the holiday brings. This year, Hanukkah begins the evening of Thursday, Dec. 10, and ends Friday, Dec. 18.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles through its NuRoots program for young adults will continue its Hanukkah festival, “Infinite Light,” now in its sixth year, said Jason Leivenberg, senior vice president of NuRoots.

“This year we can’t physically come together,” he said. “But we’re still eight nights of virtual programming in collaboration with other community partners. Each organization has its own flavor of fun and meaning and are connected to Jewish life in Los Angeles.”

The federation has created a Hanukkah box with everything one might need to celebrate the holiday — chocolate gelt, candles, discount coupons to a kosher donut shop.

“Just things that are going to give you some of that Hanukkah joy,” Leivenberg said. “Our goal this year is to make sure no one is lighting their candles alone. We’re all connected to each other by light.”

More than 100 families came to a drive-thru Hanukkah celebration in Los Alamitos Monday, Dec. 7 in a parking lot between the Los Alamitos Race Course and Costco on Katella Avenue. (Photo courtesy of

Keeping traditions alive

Hanukkah is the most publicly celebrated Jewish holiday, typically marked by menorah lighting ceremonies in city halls, town squares and shopping malls.

But this year, synagogues and faith leaders have had to improvise as they try to make such ceremonies safe and accessible, especially as many Southern California cities go into lockdown mode to stop the spread of the virus.

Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, who leads Chabad of Los Alamitos and Cypress, usually hosts a public menorah lighting on the beach in Seal Beach. This time, he held a drive-in menorah lighting the evening of Monday, Dec. 7, in a parking lot between the Los Alamitos Race Course and Costco on Katella Avenue. He put up a 40-foot blowup screen that featured a live music performance. Everyone remained in their cars and tuned in to an FM station to hear the goings-on, Marcus said.

“It was amazing,” he said. “Young people came. Seniors from assisted living centers came. This was just what everyone needed.”

In preparation for the event, Marcus said he went to a green screen studio in Los Angeles and recorded all the Hanukkah songs and presentations, which were projected on to the giant screen during the event, as was the live menorah lighting. Marcus said some people even stayed back after the event and took selfies with the 9-foot-tall menorah.

Other synagogues in Southern California have planned similar celebrations. The Chabad Jewish Community Center of Riverside will also host a drive-in Hanukkah celebration from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14, at Riverside City College, 4800 Magnolia Ave., featuring a live concert on a big screen by Jewish rock group 8th Day.

Marcus said the message of Hanukkah, of light overcoming darkness, is especially important in these trying times.

“When you don’t have any more strength, when you are an in-person business that is being shut down, the message of Hanukkah is that deep down, you have that little jar of oil that’s unbreakable, and it will hold you over until the new shipment arrives,” he said. “We will get through this pandemic and we will celebrate when it’s all over.”

Source: Orange County Register

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