Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights, and since the holiday follows the lunar calendar it falls on different dates each year

Emily Shem-Tov

By Emily Shem-Tov

As the days get shorter and it’s dark and chilly (for California) earlier in the evenings, it feels necessary to bring some light and festivity into our lives. More than ever as this year draws to a close — a year we’ve stayed apart from friends and family and worried about everyone’s health and safety — we could all use a bit of that light. For our family, this comes in the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which commemorates the miracle of light (in the form of an oil lamp that burned for eight days despite the destruction of the temple in ancient Israel).

To commemorate this miraculous event, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights, and since the holiday follows the lunar calendar it falls on different dates each year.

This year it runs from the evening of Thursday, Dec. 10, until the evening of Friday, Dec. 18.

Photo courtesy the Shem-Tov family
Miriam Shem-Tov lights a menorah during a recent Hanukkah celebration.

Usually, for our family, this holiday involves gathering with family, friends, and with our local Jewish community to celebrate.

Congregation Emeth is the inclusive Reform Jewish congregation located in Morgan Hill that we belong to. It has served the Jewish community throughout southern Santa Clara County and beyond for more than 40 years.

This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, families and communities around the world are adjusting to celebrating holidays differently, and in many cases planning to come together online through events such as the ones offered by Congregation Emeth.

The centerpiece of the holiday is lighting candles each evening with special prayers — and an additional candle for each night — in a chanukiah (or menorah, the nine-branched candelabra used during the celebration). Since we can’t get together in person this year, we’re looking forward to joining our friends each night via Zoom to light our candles together.

Normally, on Friday night during Hanukkah at Congregation Emeth, everyone brings their menorahs to the front of the sanctuary and lights the candles together before the evening service. This year, instead, we will hold an online service, led by Rabbi Dantowitz and Student-Rabbi Mira Weller.

Dantowitz moved across the country this summer to become the new rabbi for our congregation and it’s amazing how she’s been able to create ties with so many of us in the congregation even though we haven’t been able to spend any time in person with her yet.

Student-Rabbi Weller will be joining us virtually from Southern California, one of the benefits we do gain from coming together online, where our circle has expanded beyond the immediate geography.

Food is another very important part of this holiday. Each year, we celebrate with traditional foods prepared in oil (again to remember the miracle of the oil lamp) including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts).  Congregation Emeth will be hosting a congregation-wide online latke making party, and we’ll be making both latkes and sufganiyot at our house. Our daughters love deep-frying the donuts and filling them with strawberry jam, while I like to top my latkes with both applesauce and sour cream.

In addition to the food and fun — and yes, some gift exchanging — our family also puts a big emphasis on charitable donations and a commitment to tikkun olam (repairing the world) during the holiday.

Each year, every member of our family gets to pick causes they would like to support — this year we’ll be contributing to local groups like the new San Martin Animal Shelter, theater groups like STAR Arts Education in Gilroy, and local food banks.

It gives us a chance to try to share some of the light and joy of the holiday with others in need and helps us to remember that while we can’t be with our families and friends during the holiday, we have much to be thankful for.

Whatever holidays you are celebrating this winter season, best wishes from all of us for light and joy to you and your families.

For more information, visit www.emeth.net.

Emily Shem-Tov is a Morgan Hill resident and member of Congregation Emeth. She wrote this for Morgan Hill Life.