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In a year of darkness, Hanukkah 2020 brings talk of hope and light

Synagogues in Tampa Bay are planning ways to help people feel connected during the pandemic. “Hanukkah was made for a year like this.”
Rabbi Philip Weintraub, left, Sandy Brasch and Billie Bornstein greet members of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg as they drive up to receive Hanukkah kits Wednesday. The kits will allow members to celebrate the holiday at home.
Rabbi Philip Weintraub, left, Sandy Brasch and Billie Bornstein greet members of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg as they drive up to receive Hanukkah kits Wednesday. The kits will allow members to celebrate the holiday at home. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 10, 2020
Updated Dec. 10, 2020

Each Hanukkah, Rabbi Levi Hodakov of the Chabad of Clearwater tries to outdo the previous one.

Over the last 15 years, the synagogue has constructed giant menorahs out of pizza, cereal boxes, falafels, jelly beans, Laffy Taffy and other components, mostly to engage youth in celebration.

“We try to be trailblazers,” he said.

So even a pandemic could not deter this year’s celebration. Though crowds that reached 300 in previous seasons won’t be there, the giant menorah for 2020 will be made of potato chips — eight flavors, for each day of Hanukkah.

“If we can do it safely and responsibly, then we’ve got to celebrate,” Hodakov said.

Each year, Chabad of Clearwater fashions a menorah out of a different materials as a way to engage younger members in Hanukkah celebrations. In this photo from a previous year, former Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and Rabbi Levi Hodakov stand under a menorah made of cereal boxes. The menorah for 2020 is made of potato chips. (Courtesy of Chabad of Clearwater).
Each year, Chabad of Clearwater fashions a menorah out of a different materials as a way to engage younger members in Hanukkah celebrations. In this photo from a previous year, former Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and Rabbi Levi Hodakov stand under a menorah made of cereal boxes. The menorah for 2020 is made of potato chips. (Courtesy of Chabad of Clearwater).

As Hanukkah, sometimes spelled Chanukah, begins Thursday, rabbis across Tampa Bay are trying to ensure that social distancing does not keep people from connecting.

While the holiday is often celebrated at home, Rabbi Philip Weintraub, with Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg, said it was important that no one feels isolated.

The congregation’s do-it-yourself Hanukkah kits with menorahs and dreidels were available for people to celebrate at home. Menorah lightings and other events will be held each day over Zoom.

“To me in this moment, it is a reminder over and over and over again that none of us are alone,” Weintraub said. “We’re in this together. Within our faith community, but also in our city and our state and our nation and our world. This moment is universal, and the whole world is going through a challenge together.”

The light of Hanukkah, said Rabbi Alter Korf with Chabad of St. Petersburg, couldn’t be more needed now.

“Hanukkah was made for a year like this,” he said. “In terms of its history, it comes from a time where there was a tremendous amount of darkness. The miracle of Hanukkah demonstrated how one little jug (of oil) was able to go eight days, a little bit of resolve could go so far, a little bit of light can prevail over so much darkness.”

The Hanukkah kits distributed Wednesday by Congregation B'nai Israel contain menorahs and dreidels so people could celebrate at home.
The Hanukkah kits distributed Wednesday by Congregation B'nai Israel contain menorahs and dreidels so people could celebrate at home. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

While Chabad of St. Petersburg typically lights a menorah in North Straub Park and invites the community, this year they are taking the lights of Hanukkah on the road. On Thursday, a parade with menorahs strapped to car roofs will wind through the streets of downtown St. Petersburg to music.

“The menorah is lit after it starts getting dark,” Korf said. “That’s what the message of Hanukkah empowers us to do, to realize darkness cannot be driven away with a stick or some type of battle. Darkness is driven away with light. When more than today do we need to be reminded of the need to focus on what is good, what is positive and what we can do to bring more positive goodness and kindness in our surroundings to spread the light?”

Korf recommended small actions, like calling a friend or reaching out to a neighbor.

“We have to retain that hope that the future will be brighter,” he said.

Rabbi Joel Simon with Congregation Schaarai Zedek said this Hanukkah is a reminder of a time when Jewish people were not always able to practice their faith.

This year, the synagogue will host virtual events, including candle lightings, a concert for kids and a party for those in their 20s and 30s.

“I think this year is a time to remember all that we are still grateful for and celebrate that freedom,” he said. “And that freedom to help one another and look out for one another. By making sacrifices in the way we’re living our lives right now, it’s really exercising our freedom to create the kind of world we want to live in.”

Rabbi Michael Torop with Temple Beth-El said one practice during Hanukkah is to display menorahs in one’s window. This year, with most staying within their homes, Torop said they hope to fill 101 Zoom windows with menorahs.

“A candle is one of very few things that can give of itself completely without diminishing itself,” he said. “I truly think that’s how it is in our souls.”

As the secular year comes to an end, Torop said he wants people to not give up hope, colloquially referred to as the 614th commandment for Jewish people.

“The vaccines have just gotten created, which is amazing. And they’re starting to be distributed, which is unprecedented,” he said. “So, despite all the missteps that perhaps have been made, we’re going to get there.”