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Hanukkah 2020: Pandemic puts new twist on 2,000-year-old tradition

  • Tom Beck, of Woodstock, Vt., lights the first candle of the Hanukkah menorah in the sanctuary of Congregation Shir Shalom while the Woodstock Area Jewish Community participates via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic on Dec. 10, 2020. An estimated 100 people were connected -- in years past, 100-125 usually attend in person for the Hanukkah service. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • The Hanukkah menorah that Tom Beck, of Woodstock, Vt., has been lighting since he was a boy glows in the window of Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock on Dec. 10, 2020. The candle at right is the shamash, which is used to light the others during the eight days of Hanukkah. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tom Beck, of Woodstock, Vt., sets up his laptop for an estimated 100 attendees via Zoom to see the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah in the sanctuary of Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock on Dec. 10, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the congregation will be sharing all eight nights of Hanukkah's candle-lighting over Zoom, where in years past the congregation gets together in person for one service. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/12/2020 10:36:01 PM
Modified: 12/12/2020 10:35:59 PM

WOODSTOCK — The “Baruch Atah Adonai” blessing is said, and lights start to flicker across the screen.

People in more than 50 digital Zoom boxes light the candles on their menorahs and a moment of silence prevails among the Shir Shalom congregants during the second night of Hanukkah. The participants may be in 50 different locations, but they light their candles together in a tradition that has been carried out for more than 2,000 years.

This how Shir Shalom, a reform congregation based in Woodstock, observes Hanukkah in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where social distancing guidelines keep people physically apart and they must find new ways to carry out traditions.

“This is not your father’s Hanukkah, I have to say,” Rabbi Illene Haigh said Thursday during the first night of the eight-day virtual gathering.

She talked about the empty seats at the table this year due to the pandemic and the pain people are feeling. She told congregants to think of the blessings they have, the roofs over their heads, the food in their homes and the technology that allows them to connect.

“It is a gift for us to be together,” Haigh said. “If you don’t have a menorah in your house, it’s OK. You have us.”

Most years on a Friday night during Hanukkah, the congregation holds an in-person celebration that draws up to 150 people. There are games for children, a potluck meal and singing. People bring their menorahs and gather in the sanctuary, where they light the next candle together.

For Hanukkah 2020 (or 5781 in the Hebrew calendar), the congregation decided to do a half-hour gathering each night of Hanukkah from 6-6:30 p.m., which includes a short program and menorah lighting.

“We’re able to connect with people who were connected to the congregation over the years who were challenged by actual distance,” congregation member Tom Beck said in a phone interview.

Beck is the only congregation member physically in the Woodstock sanctuary each night, where he lights a menorah that can be seen from the road.

During the eight-day celebration and beyond, the congregation is also focusing on social action and social justice projects. The group is holding a food drive for area food shelves and making meals for the Upper Valley Haven. Some congregants are making calls for the upcoming runoff election in Georgia for two U.S. Senate seats.

“Food insecurity is a huge issue right now,” Richard Windish, who is organizing the food collection, said during the first night of Hanukkah.

The activism embodies the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam,” congregation president Phyllis Forbes said during a phone interview. It translates to “repairing the world” and “is a fundamental concept in Judaism.”

Since the pandemic began, food insecurity throughout Vermont has risen and people are suffering as a result.

“We should address that problem,” Forbes said. “That should be our contribution to repairing the world.”

The second night of the Hanukkah celebration on Friday featured musical performances. Dan Gottsegen started the night off by singing Maoz Tzur a capella, switching between Hebrew and English. Next, Shari Borzekowski and Carly Levin Santalone joined for a duet of This Little Light of Mine. People could be seen singing along even though they were muted. Shmuel Dorr sang Ocho Kandelikas and was accompanied by Levin Santalone.

“Think about all we’re grateful for this year,” Haigh said as Dorr worked to get the music technology running. “We breathe in, we take in the candles and the beautiful reflections.”

Since March, services, Hebrew school and prayer groups have gone virtual, and Forbes said the congregation is growing. Volunteers have made three rounds of calls to congregation members. Younger people, including children, run errands and do yardwork for older adults in the community.

“I think as a community we’re pretty blessed,” Haigh said in a phone interview. “We just want to do whatever we can to respond to what’s going on the world.”

The second night ended with Jeanie Levitan singing Light These Lights.

“Oh hear my prayer/I sing to You,” Levitan sang as others sang along on mute. “Be gracious to the ones I love/And bless them with goodness, and mercy and peace.”

Editor’s note: For more information about Shir Shalom’s Hanukkah celebration, shirshalomvt.org.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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