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Michigan Jews find creative fun, unity in second pandemic Hanukkah


When the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah arrived in 2020’s final month, B’nai Israel in West Bloomfield Township joined other southeast Michigan synagogues that opted for Zoom ceremonies as COVID-19 cases threatened close contact.

A year later, loosened restrictions and rising vaccination numbers offer members another chance to celebrate the eight-night tradition known as the Festival of Lights that starts at sundown Sunday. So, next weekend, they plan to host an outdoor spectacular featuring games, stories, a petting zoo with furry mammals, guests in pajamas, stories and lighting a menorah crafted from tiki torches.

“I’m just hoping for a fun night,” said Mechelle Bernard, a longtime member from Berkley co-organizing the event. “It was hard when everything shut down (last year). Seeing each other outside will be lovely.”

The second Hanukkah during a pandemic means congregations are extending the creative planning honed over nearly two years to coordinate festivities that balance safety and community.

To some, uniting to mark a holiday that honors the memory of an ancient victory over cruelty has become even more necessary as uncertainty about the virus, political polarization and other issues remain.

“People are coming together,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director for the JCRC/AJC, the region’s most prominent Jewish-led group. “In a sense, people feel stakes are higher this year. It has this heaviness we’re all going through.”

Also spelled Chanukah, the holiday observed through Dec. 6 commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. 

Tradition holds that Jewish ancestors known as the Maccabees defeated occupying forces who outlawed their religion, massacred many and desecrated the site.

The menorah lit nightly throughout Hanukkah symbolizes how oil believed to last a single day in the rededication instead blazed for eight.

That miracle is the focus of many holiday festivities, including one considered the largest in the area: Menorah in the D.

The 11th annual event returns Sunday to Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit after a virtual outing in 2020.

This year’s version is hybrid, featuring an in-person and livestream component.

Many are expected to brave the chill for street performers, face painting, marshmallow roasting pits, a mitzvah station and the centerpiece: lighting the 26-foot steel and glass candelabrum. Danny Fenster, the Metro Detroit journalist newly freed after nearly six months jailed in Myanmar, is one of the honorees to light the piece. 

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“We take strength from the menorah, always increasing in light, as the best possible way to combat any darkness and to raise our strength around us,” said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov of the Shul-Chabad Lubavitch in West Bloomfield, which helps present the gathering.

“On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, we add another candle — generating more and more light. Like a flaming candle, all you need to do is touch another person with an act of kindness and sincerity and their flame will be ignited as well. One candle at a time, one soul at a time, the world becomes a brighter, warmer place.”

The giving spirit imbues other events throughout the period.

On Dec. 2, Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit in Farmington Hills welcomes students and others to light the menorah in the parking lot while also bringing gifts for donation to Brilliant Detroit and Orchards Children’s Services

“Hanukkah is about sharing light,” said school Rabbi David Fain. “One way we can give light is to give to those who may not have as much. That’s the message of the holiday.”

Aside from charity, gift-giving and spiritual reflection, celebrants say they also look forward to fun each year.

That’s why when coordinating a holiday event this year at B’nai Israel, Rabbi Michael Gilboa considered what might appeal to his three children. Thus, the “Hanukkah Llamakah Pajamakah Extravaganza” was born.

“It’s good to be creative and it’s good to find new ways to be outdoors and spend time together,” he said. “There’s excitement. There’s a lot of hope in seeing what these new approaches can bring.”

It also dovetails with the holiday’s themes and hopes of moving away from the worst days in the pandemic, said Joanna Abramson, president of the synagogue. “We’re going to celebrate our own coming out from oppression. It’s time for us to celebrate the good things around us and to see it.”

The final night of Hanukkah finds conservative congregations partnering for an outdoor celebration at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. It features a performance by Detroit Circus, entertainment from DJ Phreddy, fire pits, hot chocolate, a photo booth and community candle lighting. Attendees are encouraged to bring new toys to donate to the nonprofit Bottomless Toy Chest.

“There has been such an excitement to really make something special for families,” said Jaron Friedman, a programming co-chair of the men’s club at Adat Shalom. “Hanukkah has a special place in my heart, and I want my kids to grow up experiencing some of the fun memories that I have lighting the menorah with friends and family. This is a great way for us to do that.”

Some are celebrating Hanukkah 2021 with a call to strengthen communal ties. As part of a national initiative through an umbrella group, some Jewish officials plan to host a kosher meal with the African American church community in Detroit to end the holiday, Lopatin said.

He noted the holiday arrives as hate crimes rise nationwide and activists push for tougher ways to address racism and anti-Semitism.

“We’re all feeling like we're fighting for survival,” Lopatin said. “We look at our allies, our Muslim, Hindu, Christian and African American friends, and we need them on this holiday. Hanukkah is not just about Jews being allowed to be Jews. We all have to come together. We have to give each other strength and encouragement.”