Although the COVID-19 pandemic upended the communal aspects of Jewish life, Gainesville’s Jewish community was still able to celebrate the Festival of Lights in each other’s company throughout the week beginning with Nov. 28.
Hanukkah, which is observed over an eight-day period, is a celebration of the triumph of the Jewish Maccabees against the ruler Antiochus which then allowed them to rededicate their Temple in Jerusalem and discover that a small amount of oil was able to burn for a period of eight days.
The holiday usually falls in mid to late December, which can mean students aren’t on campus because of winter break. This year, however, it fell near finals week.
Alexandra Morse, a 19-year-old UF marketing sophomore, celebrated her first Hanukkah in Gainesville this year after spending it at home with her parents last year.
Morse went to a candlelight event Wednesday with UF Hillel, the largest Jewish organization in the world whose Gainesville chapter hosts a wide array of festivities across the city.
This year’s celebration runs laps around last year’s for Morse, she said. Though Hanukkah wasn’t necessarily a let down for her in 2020, it didn’t meet her normal expectations. Morse, who usually has a large gathering of 10 to 20 people for the holidays, had a three-person Thanksgiving last year.
“We didn’t get to do our Hanukkah party or having buddies over, so it was literally my parents and I every night, lighting in the kitchen by ourselves,” she said. “Kind of depressing to be honest.”
Bailee Rousso, a 22-year-old UF family, youth and community sciences senior, noticed a change in this year’s Hanukkah celebration.
In 2020, most of the Hillel Hanukkah festivities took place outside for safety protocols. Rousso said she’s glad this year is moving back to a conventional celebration after it’s non-traditional forerunner.
She said she grew up believing in Judaism, attending a Jewish day school from preschool through high school.
When at home in Weston, Florida, Rousso makes latkes, lights a real menorah and turns on an electric one that sits on a windowsill at the front of her house. Rousso always made candles with her family for Hanukkah and wanted the tradition to continue when she came to college. She said she now makes them in her apartment with her roommates or in the UF Hillel building.
“I think it’s nice to be able to be around other people again and celebrate together,” Rousso said.
Alex Nelson, a freshman and UF wildlife ecology and conservation major, spent the third night of Hanukkah Tuesday with UF Hillel. She said being there was important to her because it allowed her to remain connected to her Jewish faith and be around members of her religious community.
She said COVID-19 altered the experience of Hanukkah celebrations because of the isolation associated with the pandemic.
“Throughout the week, during quarantine, we’d light the menorah, and I’d be able to spend the time with my family,” she said. “However, we didn’t have the opportunity to observe it and celebrate it with our community as much as we usually would.”
Nelson said Hanukkah is meaningful to her because it gives her the opportunity to reflect on the history Jewish community.
“We have many holidays in Judaism, and I feel like Hanukkah is one that focuses on the good and one of the positive experiences that we’ve had in our history,” she said.
As the pandemic continues, the Gainesville Jewish community is determined to bring the Hanukkah celebration to everyone.
Rabbi Berl Goldman is a religious leader at Chabad UF, part of a worldwide organization with 5,000 centers across the globe and about 300 on U.S. campuses. Each is independently owned and operated, Goldman said.
He said he resonates with Hanukkah because of his devotion to his faith.
“The story of Hanukkah is not only historic in nature, but every single message of the menorah, good over evil, light over darkness, few over many, is such a relevant message to young and old today,” Goldman said.
Goldman said the center has been getting creative to include Gainesville residents who may not be ready to gather in a group setting.
Volunteers donated more than 110 Hanukkah care bags, made up of matzah ball soup, bagels, homemade brownies and Israeli croutons, to homebound Gainesville residents Wednesday, Goldman said.
“So there's a way to bring the joy of the celebrations and the joy of the holiday to them — those that cannot meet in person because of immune compromised or other concerns,” Goldman said. “Every holiday, especially Hanukkah, is in the center of our hearts.”
Michael Joseph, the 63-year-old rabbi of Temple Shir Shalom, said he appreciates U.S. Jews’ ability to observe the holiday without reservation — a privilege the community has not always had in its history.
“In the United States, particularly, it’s a festival of religious freedom,” he said. “In the course of Jewish history, it’s really almost a unique phenomenon that we’re able to have our celebration freely.”
Joseph said the holiday can be a beacon of hope during trying times. This message of Hanukkah is particularly relevant with challenges presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“The nature of light at a dark time of year is very, very powerful,” he said. “Last year, in December, we were waiting any day until the vaccine would be released, and it was that kind of light.”
He said that as the pandemic continues and a new variant emerges, the community will continue to provide the glow of hope.
“At least the light that we can make, we’re determined to make and make it as bright as we possibly can,” he said.
Faith Buckley is a first-year journalism student at UF and The Alligator's swimming and diving beat writer. She is specializing in sports media to one day hopefully work as an NHL commentator.
Omar is a second-year journalism major and news assistant for The Alligator. He enjoys going on long, thoughtful walks.