‘Overcoming adversity’ in mind as Hanukkah begins

Siblings, from left, Jacob, Davin and Mattea Kaminski of Clayton practice lighting candles on the menorah from inside their home earlier this week. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — For Caroline Schwartz, Hanukkah 2020 is well-timed, coming during a test of will to outlast and emerge from the ongoing pandemic.

“There has to be a broader message coming from God: Have faith,” said Ms. Schwartz, president of Congregation Beth Sholom in Dover. “We’ll overcome. You know, Jews in history have overcome every insurmountable thing put in their way.

“That’s why I think this year’s celebration is a celebration of overcoming adversity, so we’re going to use our history as an example of going forward, like the Maccabees, who overcame the destruction of the temple and the lack of oil, and we light the menorah because they had faith, they worked hard, and we will overcome.”

This year’s Festival of Lights begins after sundown Thursday, with Zoom bringing Jewish communities together to light the first of eight candles on the menorah.

The Rehoboth Beach-based Seaside Jewish Community is set to gather virtually and plans to continue for each night’s observance.

“During this pandemic, the biggest change is an inability to gather in any group much larger than your own individual ‘COVID bubble,’” said Rabbi Kevin Bernstein of Seaside.

“On the bright side, with nine months of experience, we now know that, time zones notwithstanding, it’s just as easy to Zoom together to light candles with your friends overseas as it is with your neighbors,” he added. “You can even light candles for different days at the same Zoom meeting, if you time it right with friends or relatives in Israel.”

Seaside congregants can also celebrate a new $1.25 million expansion project, nearly complete after breaking ground in January.

Yet, this year, there’s something still missing, said Rabbi Jacob Lieberman, president of the Delaware Association of Rabbis and Cantors. The change in approach due to coronavirus is not lost on the kids, he said.

“Children in our community seem to understand by and large that we are united in our commitment to life and that, for the moment, some things are not possible,” the rabbi said.

“Thankfully, most of the Hanukkah traditions, like lighting candles, eating latkes and jelly donuts and playing dreidel, can all happen easily in our homes,” he said.

“But would they like to get together with their friends? Yes, just as much as the adults.”

If anything, Rabbi Lieberman said, “the pandemic is encouraging us to shine the light of Hanukkah farther and brighter.”

On Thursday morning, Providence Creek Academy fifth grader Mattea Kaminski hardly sounded crestfallen about the upcoming eight days. Besides the in-home celebration, the Clayton resident will travel with her family to see grandparents this weekend to observe the holiday. They’ll visit them in the Wilmington area and stay outside the whole time, said her mother, Samara.

“I’m really excited,” Mattea said. “We’re going to have to wear masks and social distance, but I think it will be fun (visiting my grandparents),” she said. “I’m still really excited. The fun part (at home) is when we light candles and sing songs.

“It’s really fun to sit around the table and do that.”

Ms. Kaminski was slightly wistful when recalling past Hanukkah weeks, when she’d visit her children’s school and share the celebration with their classmates.

“I usually visit their classroom and talk about (what) Hanukkah is about, read a story, bring Tater Tots, bring dreidels to play games with and keep, leave them with gold coins. It’s a little disappointing to them and their friends, so maybe we’ll figure something out and do it through Zoom.”

While Hanukkah is widely celebrated in America, Rabbi Bernstein said, “it is actually a minor Jewish holiday. It does not have a well-attended or lengthy prayer service associated with it (like the High Holy Days), nor a tradition of a large, festive meal that usually has extended family in attendance (like a Passover seder).

“It is mostly celebrated with a small, short ceremony in the evening (when Jewish days officially begin), with candle-lighting and short blessings. Add a few songs, perhaps some gift-exchanging, and then, if it’s not a weekend night with a larger gathering, it’s back to everyday business. … There’s school or work the next day.”

Rabbi Lieberman described Hanukkah as “a celebration of our religious freedom to be Jews practicing our Judaism. It is also a time of great joy. We are staying focused on what’s good, on the opportunities for celebration and connection through our newer technologies and trying to bring these into the light.”

To Ms. Schwartz, Hanukkah is “a festival. It’s not written in the Bible. This is … a miracle happening, and it’s a joyous holiday.”

In addition, Congregation Beth Sholom found a way to conduct two bar mitzvahs (one in November, the other in December) via Zoom, without leaving out faraway relatives. Ms. Schwartz said the inside gatherings were small and limited to immediate family members, due to health and safety precautions prevalent in so many parts of life.

Congregation Beth Sholom President Caroline Schwartz demonstrates lighting candles on a menorah inside the synagogue in Dover. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

“That had its plus sides because relatives all over the world were able to participate on Zoom, so nobody had to fly into the States or miss it,” Ms. Schwartz said.

“It was very exciting to see all the people. We set up a very large-screen TV to see all the people participating.”

To limit any potential of COVID-19 spread inside the synagogue, “we did not touch the Torah,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Each child read from a printed copy of their portion rather than infect the Torah, which we treat as a sacred text.

“With the COVID situation, we treat it as we would a person when it comes to taking precautions.”

Quipped Ms. Schwartz when discussing the move to a virtual method of gathering: “I should have bought stock in the Zoom company. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, right?”