July 14, 2024
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Chanukah 2020: The One Where We Had Mystery Maccabee on Zoom and the Garage as Our Living Room

Whether separated by geography or COVID-19 restrictions, friends and families creatively celebrated Chanukah 2020 together on Zoom with candle lighting and gift exchanges. Mystery Maccabee groups organized gift exchanges by drawing names to be recipients of their largesse, or letting a gift-organizing website help with the process. Elfster, a website that supports all types of exchanges saw a 23% increase in use over 2019 during this quarter, which they attribute to Chanukah gift exchanges, according to Meghan Langseder, community manager. Amazon was usually the shaliach.

Tight-knit groups of college friends go their separate ways after graduation but this year, they had Chanukah reunions on Zoom. “We wanted to find a way to bring our friends together and celebrate like we did back at school,” recalled Michael Steinberg, a 2019 graduate of Binghamton University, now living in his family’s Riverdale, New York, home. With friends living in Maryland, California, Binghamton, New York and New Jersey, a Zoom Mystery Maccabee party was the ideal solution.

A few weeks before Chanukah, Steinberg and friends started organizing a gift exchange and virtual event. With a Facebook group invitation and the website www.drawnames.com, each of the 25 group members was assigned a name and had access to a gift wish list with a price cap of $20. Activities during the event kept the friends engaged. “We tried to plan so we were always doing something and there were no awkward pauses,” said Steinberg. In a Kahoot game, everyone had to include three random facts about themselves and the friends had to guess who the facts were describing. A doughnut-eating contest added to the festivities. Each participant lit candles at home in view of both the outside and the Zoom camera.

“We did the best we could with what we had,” said Steinberg. “Everyone said they appreciated and enjoyed it. It was even better than we expected.” Steinberg said his family also did a Zoom candle lighting one night with siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.

While travel and large get-togethers are not possible now, some semblance of communal life has continued. Children are back in school, minyanim are meeting and businesses are open with limited capacity. But people are still getting COVID-19 and anyone exposed to them has to strictly quarantine. That made Chanukah even tougher for some families.

Rabbi Willie and Estee Balk spent Chanukah quarantining in their Englewood home after being exposed to someone who developed COVID-19. As youth directors of Congregation Ahavath Torah, the Balks were able to do some but not all of their work without leaving home. The parsha-to-go packages they make weekly had to be done by somebody else. But a Chanukah concert with the Maccabeats they organized for the shul with Ben Porat Yosef, Yavneh Academy and the Moriah School was already scheduled on Zoom and took place as planned. Estee said they had two Zoom family Chanukah get togethers.

“While we still felt included, we missed the togetherness,” she said wistfully. Still, they were able to drop off and receive gifts, and be there on Zoom to open presents. They were not totally deprived: Estee’s mother dropped off a package of her scrumptious latkes. Estee said there were some positive aspects to Chanukah in quarantine: “My husband was able to light candles on time this year, since he didn’t have to be anywhere else.”

In previous years, Jewish Link publisher Moshe Kinderlehrer spent most Chanukah evenings at community events, all of which were cancelled or scaled back this year. His wife, Dena, decided the family would do something different this year and planned a Mystery Maccabee gift exchange for the family. About two weeks before Chanukah, the family drew names and capped the gift giving at $30.

“My wife and I enjoyed teasing our children over the past two weeks by having them guess, or try to guess, who had who (to give a gift to) but it was all in good fun,” he said. “I ended up with a motorized revolving tie rack from my eldest daughter…which was actually a great gift.”

A garage is built for cars, but the pandemic is turning it into a temporary winter living room. One family told me they decided not to have a party but gathered their children and grandchildren together in the garage for their annual Chanukah photo. Another said they started having garage family get togethers at Thanksgiving.

Jill Kirsch, senior editor of The Jewish Link, said once her parents realized the garage could serve as a gathering place for family Chanukah visits, they swept out 50 years of dust and installed a heater. A Happy Chanukah sign, and picture of a menorah made by a grandchild, provided some decoration. Kirsch’s family, and her siblings and their families, took turns visiting at a safe six-foot distance from where their parents, Pearl and Philip Perlstein, sat behind a folding table that had quickly been ordered online. The visits included a gift exchange and light refreshments, consumed near the open garage door. Kirsch also lit candles with her extended family on Zoom twice during the week, which “was a great way to see everyone,” she said.

“It wasn’t the same,” said Kirsch, “but by the time Chanukah ended, we all felt the family closeness. I think my parents were happy, which was our goal.”

Estee Balk noted that all the holidays this year took place during the pandemic, with restrictions on being with family and friends, but we still found ways to connect and celebrate with simcha. “You appreciate what’s around you,” she said. “You create your own atmosphere.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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