Virus moves Metro Detroit Hanukkah celebrations online, outdoors

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

For 15-year-old Izzy Cimmino and thousands of other Jews across Metro Detroit, this year's Hanukkah is unlike any other.

Instead of large gatherings and large-scale festivities, the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing holiday observances online or outside, from drive-in menorah lightings to live-streamed ceremonies. 

The nine candle Hanukkah menorah seen with downtown buildings and the Christmas tree behind it at Campus Martius in Detroit on Dec. 9, 2020.

Despite the challenges, Izzy of Farmington Hills and other worshipers are taking in stride the upended plans for the eight-day “Festival of Lights” that started at sundown Thursday.

“It’s going to be a little different,” she said. “I understand that I’m not going to be celebrating the same way, but it gives us the opportunity to try something new and have new memories with one another.” 

Hanukkah is dedicated to marking the victory of the Maccabees over oppressive forces in ancient times and a miracle: when the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated more than 2,000 years ago, a lone day’s worth of oil lasted eight.

The central symbol, a menorah, anchors the celebrations, but with a twist this year.

The tiki torch menorahs outside Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park.

To mark the start of the holiday, Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park hosted an event on its front lawn featuring a tiki torch menorah.

With the virus, "we have to reimagine how we’re going to observe certain days," said Rabbi Matt Zerwekh, who leads the congregation. "As the darkness grows during the winter, and sunlight becomes rare, points of contact are significant for folks."

The annual “Menorah in the D” celebration Thursday illuminated a massive steel and glass piece in downtown Detroit’s Campus Martius Park. But instead of the packed crowd that typically descends on the traditional event, a smaller, socially distanced audience watched a ceremony online.

Virtual participants had a chance to gain a “lamplighter kit” so they could simultaneously light a menorah at home. A Zoom “after-party” followed.

Gathering under such circumstances only underscores Hanukkah’s themes, said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov with Shul-Chabad Lubavitch in West Bloomfield Township, which was a presenter of Menorah in the D.

“Each each of us has the power of the soul and the power of light that we can share,” he said. “And when we come across darkness and challenges, we want to have the message of the jug of oil that doesn’t become extinguished and continue to share our light. Especially when people are struggling.”

Scott Sherman representing the Fisher Foundation, right, lights the menorah at the Menorah in the D ceremony at Campus Martius in Detroit on Dec. 10, 2020. From left are Dr. Darienne Hudson of United Way Detroit and Rabbi Kisriel Shemtov.

That extends to other menorah-centered activities throughout the holiday.

The Royal Oak Chabad Jewish Center also plans to welcome hundreds of attendees for a drive-in menorah lighting Sunday enlivened by some traditional features in gatherings — holiday food, hot cider — as well as more creative fare such as a laser robot and "a glow show," organizers said. 

On Sunday, Chabad Jewish Center of Troy hosts a drive-in public lighting complete with fire throwers, interactive videos expected to draw more than 300 guests, said its leader, Rabbi Menachem Caytak.

“It’s completely out of the box,” he said. “The whole pandemic, we never sat back and said: ‘We give up.’ … We just got together, brainstormed and thought about how we could best serve the community in these circumstances.”

Like other synagogues, West Bloomfield's Temple Shir Shalom has shifted worship online for months, which led to members opting to celebrate menorah lighting through Facebook with different worshipers each night, Rabbi Daniel Schwartz said. 

Then, on Sunday, the congregation embarks on another novel development: a "road rally" in which participants follow clues to drive to various points symbolizing ties to the holiday, such as a donut shop serving the fried goods normally consumed.

"We’ve been trying to be creative about fun ways we can get together," Schwartz said. "For us to be able to join together in a safe way as a community will be a wonderful way to lift spirts at a time when it’s easy to be disappointed."

Izzy, who attends the synagogue with her family, also plans to whip up goods in a Hanukkah-themed cookie contest in which she and other youths judge their creations on Zoom.

That and the other new events aren’t quite like the holidays she remembers, but “it’ll just look like a fun time," Izzy said. "It’s getting everyone involved and it’s creating new traditions.”

Her mother, Ilyssa Cimmino, agrees. “The pandemic has created new ways to celebrate with people,” she said. “I’m looking forward to engaging in these new ways.”