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‘Challenge the darkness’: Pandemic-friendly Hanukkah celebrations a bright spot for Baltimore-area Jewish community

As the coronavirus continues to surge in Maryland, it’s become increasingly clear that residents are in for a long, dark winter. But for Rabbi Yanky Baron, one thing has remained certain: There will be a menorah lighting this Hanukkah.

“That’s really the message of Hanukkah,” said Baron, of the Ellicott City Chabad. “A little bit of light can dispel much darkness.”

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Just as the pandemic prompted modified celebrations of Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the traditions that come along with Hanukkah may look a little different this year. Public health officials have continued to urge families to refrain from gathering with relatives outside of their households and many synagogues are planning to host services virtually for the eight-day “festival of lights” that begins at sundown on Thursday.

Despite the restrictions, however, the Ellicott City Chabad and other Jewish organizations in the Baltimore area have still found ways to help people celebrate Hanukkah, which serves as a remembrance of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago. They’ve just had to be a little creative in how they do so.

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In an initiative led by the Howard County Lubavitch Center, for instance, Baron and a team of volunteers are assembling hundreds of boxes filled with latkes, chocolate gelt, menorahs, dreidels, applesauce and other Hanukkah essentials to distribute to Jewish people throughout the county.

Baron says the plan is to deliver the boxes to those who may be alone for the holiday, whether they are under quarantine or live in nursing homes, as well as people who are just in need of a smile. They hope to show there’s still so much good in the world, he says, even during a pandemic.

“With good, there’s always an adversary, always a challenge — the darkness,” he said. “But the menorah says, light a candle. Challenge the darkness.”

When Baltimore’s Center for Jewish Education asked its constituents how it could help them celebrate Hanukkah, Gabrielle Burger said she and her staff heard a message from them loud and clear: “‘Please come up with a way for us to get together, just so we can see other people, even in car windows,’” she said.

The center plans to hold a is holding a drive-in family game night on Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. From parking spots at the center, families will compete against one another for treats and prizes. Everyone will stay in their vehicles for the most part, Burger said, except when kids are asked to “spin like a dreidel” or follow similar directions. All adults and children above the age of 2 will be required to wear a mask.

“We tried really hard to listen to our families because we all know that come real December and January and February, there’s not going to be as many opportunities — weather-related wise and probably COVID-related wise — to gather,” said Burger, the center’s Jewish education engagement director. “So we wanted to try and get in as many as we could.”

Fulton’s Temple Isaiah and PJ Library also organized a drive-thru event in the lead up to the holiday, said Rachel Petroff Kessler, the temple’s family educator. The Hanukkah CARnival brought out some 220 children to watch fire jugglers, stilt walkers, unicyclists and other performers from their car windows.

Petroff Kessler’s three kids were there, too. She said her little ones will likely miss seeing their extended family members as they usually would on Hanukkah. But even though they won’t be holding their typical holiday party, Petroff Kessler says she and her family will still be lighting the menorah at home together, making latkes and playing dreidel.

Michael Witlin and his wife — who helped package Hanukkah boxes at the Ellicott City Chabad on Monday — will also be having a quiet Hanukkah at home this year, lighting the menorah and saying the blessings at home.

It’s funny, he said. Everyone asks about when the world will go back to normal, but he wonders if there even is such a thing.

“These are challenging times, but life goes on,” he said. “As we get through this, we keep moving forward and can’t look back. We just make the best of a bad situation.”

More Hanukkah events

Anne Arundel County

Westfield Annapolis Mall Menorah Lighting: The Chabad of Anne Arundel County will be distributing free Hanukkah kits from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Dec. 10, complete with treats, crafts and more. RSVP at www.ChabadAAC.com/Chanukah.

Beyond The Flame: The Chabad of Anne Arundel County will present a virtual Havdalah and menorah lighting on Dec. 12, followed by eight presentations from Jewish figures including a former Israeli professional basketball player, musical artists and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. Register at tinyurl.com/y2d2464p.

Parade of Light: Join a car parade to City Dock on Dec. 13, starting at Safeway at 5:30 p.m. Individually wrapped chocolate gelt, prepackaged latkes and Hanukkah kits will be given out while supplies last. The parade will reach City Dock near the Alex Haley Memorial at around 5:45 p.m. RSVP at www.chabadaac.com/chanukahparade. The event is free and open to all.

Baltimore City

Nightly Zoom candle-lighting ceremonies and parties: Dec. 10 through Dec. 18 at 4:45 p.m., hosted by the Edward A. Myerberg Center in Northwest Baltimore. Visit myerberg.org/festival.

Hanukkah Party and Havdalah under the stars: Chabad of Downtown’s Young Jewish Professionals 20s and 30s group will be hosting a socially distant evening with a bonfire, fire pit, s’mores and a menorah lighting on Dec. 12 at 8 p.m. Register at bmorejewish.com.

LGBTQIA+ Hanukkah Celebration: Join Roland Park’s Bolton Street Synagogue for a virtual Hanukkah celebration, featuring a discussion of the 2001 documentary, “Trembling Before G-d,” with the film’s director and people profiled in the movie. There will also be singing of Hanukkah tunes and a candle lighting. Register at tinyurl.com/y5glf3ry.

Hanukkah story series: Listen to stories read by local families each night, enjoy interactive holiday crafts and light the menorah candles in an event sponsored by the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Center for Jewish Education, PJ Library, the JCC and other partners. Program is free and is best for children 10 and under. Learn more at jewishmuseummd.org/events/hanukkah-story-series/.

Baltimore County

Community Hanukkah Concert: Sing Jewish songs and join in blessings led by members of the Baltimore Jewish community in an interactive musical gathering hosted by Jewish musician Rick Recht. Experience the concert in-person at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore’s outdoor movie venue in Owings Mills, or view it virtually at home. Learn more at jcc.org/gordon-center/event/chanukah-rick-recht.

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Activity craft boxes for kids: Pick up a box of 10 crafts and activities for your children at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. More details will be posted on the center’s website (jcc.org/2020-chanukah-events) when they become available.

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Carroll County

Outdoor Menorah Lighting: Join the Chabad Jewish Center of Carroll County and the Town Hall of Mt Airy for a socially distanced menorah lighting on Dec. 10 at 5 p.m., complete with a fire juggling show, doughnuts, live music and more. Masks are required, and attendees can also stay in their cars. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/y4cko5pu. The event will be held at 1 N. Main St. in Mount Airy.

Harford County

Grand Chanukah Menorah Lighting: Come to Gough Park at 5 p.m. Dec. 13 for a public menorah lighting, including jelly doughnuts, gelt, music and more. Register at harfordchabad.org/tools/events/register_cdo/eventid/11208.

Shamrock Park and virtual candle lighting: Join Temple Adas Shalom and the Chabad of Harford County at Shamrock in Bel Air for a candle lighting, or participate via Zoom at tinyurl.com/y5r59uvd.

Howard County

Virtual Hanukkah Party: The 50+ Center is teaming up with Ellicott City’s Chabad to host a virtual celebration of the holiday. Hear the Hanukkah story from Rabbi Yanky Baron, watch a doughnut tasting competition and learn how to bake latkes. Email Rabbi@ChabadEllicottCity.com for the link.

Menorah lightings: Dec. 10 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Clarksville Village Center; Dec. 13 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Merriweather District’s Color Burst Ice Rink; Dec. 14 at 6 p.m. at the Dorsey’s Search Town Center.

Hanukkah Paint Night: The Chabad of Ellicott City will be hosting a paint night at Pinots Palette with both an in-person and virtual option from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Dec. 16. RSVP at https://www.chabadellicottcity.com/events.

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