For Pennsylvanians, Hanukkah Can Bring Light During the Pandemic

Following guidelines of social distancing, the Reisboards will celebrate Hanukkah in an emptied garage.

By Helene Cohen Bludman

December 11, 2020

Families around the state are finding ways to celebrate the holiday.

As the days grow colder and the nights get longer, and the novel coronavirus pandemic surges, some might struggle to find joy this holiday season.

The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah began Thursday and Rabbi Beth Kalisch, of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Montgomery County, noted the similarities between the history of the holiday and this year’s events.

After retaking their holy temple, the Maccabees only had enough oil to light the candle for one night. However, the candle remained lit until the new oil arrived eight days later. This year, Americans have had to make a single $1,200 stimulus check in the midst of a pandemic last for seven or eight months.

“Hanukkah is about miracles, yes, and about making do with not having enough,” Kalisch said. “That little bit of oil lasted for eight days. But the miracles of Hanukkah are not only the work of God—they also depend on the actions and the courage of human beings acting together. God gave strength to the small Maccabean army to help us prevail, but the Maccabees had to be brave enough and strong enough in their convictions to be fighting for freedom in the first place.” 

She said anyone struggling financially and emotionally as this pandemic drags on “…can ask God to give us the strength to endure through this challenge. But we must also be willing to act.”

She elaborated: “It is not up to God, but up to human political will, to decide whether struggling families receive the financial support they need to make it through this time, and whether our national and local leaders do everything in their power to minimize the terrible toll of the pandemic. Hanukkah should remind us that there are many ways to spread light, but I hope that this year, it will also be a reminder that collective action is what helps bring about miracles.”

The Carroll family had their Father’s Day celebration on the driveway. For Hanukkah, they will celebrate virtually on Zoom.

Debby Drezon Carroll, of Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County, and her family are making an effort to give to others this year.

Instead of the “usual flood of gifts,” each person in the family will think of an item that costs less than $30 that they have started using this year and give it to three people. The rest of the money the family would have spent on gifts will go to a food bank, Carroll said.

It just felt appropriate this year.

“We’re cutting back on so many things we normally do, it felt right to focus less on the gift and more on the giving and the thought process,” Carroll said. This was a year of fewer choices, and more focus on the things that matter.”

For Beth Reisboard, of Narberth, Montgomery County, being with family is the most important thing. 

Her family normally has a large party with 35 to 40 people, and they plan to have a smaller gathering outside this year.

They’ll set up tables in the Reisboards’ two-car garage, like they did for Thanksgiving.

“We sat far apart and were masked except when we were eating,” Reisboard said. “It worked so well that this will be the plan for Hanukkah, too. We’ll wear boots, wool socks, and jackets. We’ll have food on platters in the breezeway and come in as family units to serve ourselves.”

Being together is what’s important, she said. 

“I tell my grandchildren, next Hanukkah we’ll do a big party like we usually do.”

In spite of the restrictions of the pandemic, Reisboard remains grateful for what she has. 

“I am humbled for just how blessed I’ve been,” she said. “I will do what I need to do this year, so I can be here for Hanukkah next year.

The Okonaks will forego a large family gathering this Hanukkah.

Andrea Okonak, of Altoona, usually has a big family bash during one of the eight nights. Her mother, siblings, kids and grandchildren attend. There could be anywhere between 20 and 39 people for dinner.

This year will be different.

“It will just be my husband and myself, my kids, my mom, who has been helping us throughout the pandemic and has been exposed to us,” said Okonak. “We feel comfortable having her for dinner. Actually, she’s cooking the dinner. She makes brisket better than I can.”

Others are also adapting.

Jim Castello will grill and serve latkes outdoors for a neighborhood gathering.

A close-knit community in their Bala Cynwyd neighborhood is what matters to Jim Castello, his wife Dara, and children Jason and Eliza. Accustomed to sharing holidays with a dozen or so friends, the Castellos were reluctant to sacrifice this tradition entirely. Castello has found ways to modify their entertaining practices to make socializing possible.

 “We have a group of neighbors we’ve been socially distance socializing with,” Castello said. “We had a Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) apples and honey happy hour on our driveway in September, and we got together before Thanksgiving for an Irish coffee and hot chocolate bar around the fire pit. I’ve been making latkes on the gas grill for six or eight years. We’ll have the neighbors over for the latkes—it’s a couple of hours, we’ll be outside, it will be fun.”

It’s a lucky accident that Castello’s latke ritual fit in with the times. “I think we need some social contact, just do it as carefully as you can. We’ve made a point of celebrating the other holidays as best we could and have been focusing on being grateful. It’s not what we want to do—it’s what we can do.” 

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