Confronting a Hanukkah Candle Conundrum

(Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 7, 2007

Around Thanksgiving, it hit Tamar Strauss-Benjamin: She would not be home for Hanukkah. And at American University, as at most colleges, candles aren't allowed in the dorm rooms. So the sophomore wouldn't be able to light her menorah.

It's a common puzzle for rabbis on campus this time of year: how to observe the holiday without breaking school rules. Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday, is celebrated by lighting a menorah each night. What many schools, including American, have done is create a public lighting ceremony that lets students enjoy the holiday -- without torching the dorms.

"It definitely bothers students to not be able to light" menorahs, said Rabbi Eli Backman, director of the Chabad group at the University of Maryland. It's a "tricky little situation. Every year, we've dealt with it differently, trying to find ways to make it work."

On Tuesday, the first night of the eight-night holiday, Strauss-Benjamin held a lighted candle to a menorah in a dormitory common room while a crowd of students sang. The menorah, on a sheet of foil stretched over an overhead projector cart, glowed brightly. A university staff member and a rabbi were there to keep an eye on things at the "Pimp My Menorah" night, at which students were invited to decorate their own menorahs with glitter and paint. Strauss-Benjamin wasn't able to light the menorah with her family back home in Tarrytown, N.Y., "but this is my college family," she said.

That type of lighting is not ideal, said Mindy Hirsch, associate director of American University Hillel, but they're trying to turn a negative into a positive, bringing the campus's Jewish community together.

For some students, it was the beginning of a great new tradition, celebrating with friends at a party. Others switched to an electric menorah without a second thought. And some, like a few of the students at the AU party, said they were still planning to light the candles in their rooms and hope to not get busted.

It's all part of the transition to college life and independence, learning to adapt traditions from home to a new place, Backman said. So observant Jewish students learn to ask for keys to their dorms rather than use electronic swipe cards so they avoid using electricity on the Sabbath, and take fall exams early so they can go home for the High Holidays. Muslims find quiet places to pray during the day, sometimes using hallways outside of classrooms. And Christians learn to choose a church and congregation they're comfortable with, or hang a crucifix in the midst of the chaos of posters in a dorm room.

But Jewish students who grew up lighting the candles at home, Hirsch said, "miss that."

Some find an electric menorah a perfectly good substitute; they are shining from windows across area campuses this week. Rabbi Kenneth Cohen at American said it's permissible to use one, but he advised students not to say the blessings over it.

"Twisting a little bulb can't ever replace the actual fire of the candles," Hirsch said. "One of the stories we tell on Hanukkah is there's a miracle of light. During wartime, they found enough oil to light their lamp for one night. It lasted for eight nights. So it has to do with the actual lighting and the actual fire."

Some people light oil, and some light candles. The flame has depth, Backman said: "Soul, light, warmth, passion -- a lot of different analogies," which is why it's preferable.

"But part of the lesson of Hanukkah is we light the menorah at nighttime in a public place. When we celebrate Hanukkah, in a sense we're celebrating our ability to practice the religion freely and openly. Part of that message is making accommodations so that students who are starting their life away from home can practice this tradition in an open, free way."

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