Lighting the night with Hillel

Ali Schumacher (far left) with friends at  JSU-terPAC Semi-Formal
Ali Schumacher (far left) with friends at
JSU-terPAC Semi-Formal

It’s that time of year again, when spirits are high, knitted sweaters aplenty and you are rocking to the Maccabeat’s lyrics “I flip my latkes in the air sometimes.” Together with student groups, Hillels across the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. are working overtime in creating fun and meaningful holiday experiences on campus to help students get into the holiday spirit.

With nearly two months since the last holiday, Simchat Torah, and seemingly endless midterms, the Jewish community at University of Maryland celebrated the holiday season with gusto. This year The Jewish Student Union (JSU) and terPAC (a student activism for Israel group) co-hosted a “Thanksgivukkah Celebration-Semi Formal for Israel” on Nov. 21. “Our semi-formal is a way to have fun before the end of the semester,” JSU student leader Ali Schumacher said. “It’s one of the biggest events of the semester, one which everyone looks forward to, and reaches different groups of students to bring the community together.”

The night featured dancing, refreshments and a live DJ performance. For freshmen like Marc Leeb, who had attended private Jewish day school, semi-formal was their first “prom”-like experience. “My high school strongly discouraged prom with dancing, let alone mixed-gender socials. I had a great time at semi-formal, and got a chance to dance and relax with friends,” Leeb said.

The theme of the holidays was giving, and students who attended JSU-terPAC’s semi-formal were reminded of those less fortunate. One dollar of every $8 ticket benefited the Israeli charity Bet Elazraki, a home in Netanya for children up to age 18 whose parents are unable to raise because the parents suffer from mental illness, drug addiction or are very poor. More than $225 from ticket sales and donations were collected and sent to Bet Elazraki.

In a spin-off of last year’s initiative to recognize Hillel’s staff, UMD students for the past month had been collecting funds from students to purchase holiday gifts for the workers. Many members of Hillel’s hourly staff have more than one job to try and make ends meet. To help with holiday meals, students purchased gift cards for each staff member at a local grocery store. Additionally, UMD Hillel ran a healthy food drive on behalf of a Family Crisis Center of Prince Georges County, a local womens’ shelter. “Canned food is not really stuff that we eat, so why would we donate it to others,” said Amy Weiss, Hillel’s Repair the World director who endorsed the drive.

With sundown starting earlier and earlier, area Hillels look to create a bright environment for their students to come light menorahs together. “We give the community a place to come together in celebration each night of the holiday, and provide a safe place to light candles on campus,” said Jason Benkendorf, executive director at American University Hillel.

The close of another winter semester brings with it another round of finals and papers. The fear of bad grades on finals is cause for students to seclude themselves in the library — without the necessary stamina attained from enjoying delicious latkes — and discourage them from lighting candles. “Attendance is totally dependent on the time of year. During finals, 20-30 may trickle in to light candles each night. This year, we anticipate we’ll help 300+ mark the holiday,” remarked Adena Kirstein, program supervisor at GW’s Hillel.

Every year the Hillel at University of Maryland marks the holiday by lighting a huge menorah placed in the center of Hillel’s lobby. Last year, the giant candelabra was lit by a team of different student groups each night. “Each night would be ‘owned’ by a pair of groups that don’t usually interact; for example, Kedma [Maryland’s Orthodox chapter] and JStreet, or terPAC and JFem [Jewish Feminist Community],” recollected Seth Finkelstein, UMD Hillel’s Jewish student life coordinator. Each team planned a different themed night for eight consecutive nights. “We encouraged them to work together and find their common ground,” noted Finkelstein.

Due to the fact that many students will be with their families over Thanksgiving and not on campus, UMD Hillel is organizing one large event taking place on the eighth night, when students will have returned from home. Hillel’s “Hanukkah Winter Wonderland” is hoping to reach 600 students from all across campus including from the north campus and Greek life communities. Carnival booths and dreidel spinning tournaments will be held. And what would a Jewish holiday be without food? Home-inspired latkes, jelly donuts and chocolate gelt will be served — the perfect remedy to beat the Finals Blues. The Winter Wonderland planning and host committees worked hard and met regularly to make this year’s event a huge success. Each member of the host committee committed to coming and bringing 10 friends. “We rely on staff contacts and student contacts to get the word out,” remarked Finkelstein.

The festival of lights is a hot occasion on all campuses. Whether it’s through attending a Chanukah bash at AU, lighting the giant Menorah on The Lawn and curling up to a showing of Rugrat’s Hannukah at University of Virginia, or sending holiday cards to Israeli and American soliders at George Washington, everyone is looking for meaningful ways to kindle their Jewish flame.

“Ultimately, our main goal through Hillel is to give college students the tools they need to celebrate Jewish life beyond the confines of college and one specific building; thus we celebrate the fact that many of our students want to cultivate a community in their rooms, their dorms, etc.,” Kirstein said. “We know many light candles across campus with their friends, spreading the light of Chanukah far beyond the walls of the Hillel!”

Something about the winter season provokes the aura of family. I remember coming home from kindergarten and giving my mom a toothy grin as I proudly displayed the wooden brick I had slathered paint onto, with nine metal nuts, and “Block” sprawled on the back in a teacher’s perfect penmanship. With my father’s steady hand guiding me, I lit my first menorah with snowflakes spinning like ballerinas outside the curtain-less windows. For 30 uninterrupted minutes, I didn’t think about TV nor did I think about presents: I was transfixed on watching the melting candles morph into rainbow pools. Now, while lighting my menorah surrounded by friends from Hillel, I watch my candles melt and realize, I am at home.

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