A Global Chanukah

Teens in Chicago light the menorah with Jews in the Ukraine, thanks to Skype and the world community of BBYO.

A Virtual Chanukah: In Chicago, Jessie Gordon and Natty Bernstein light the menorah with BBYO peers in the Ukraine. 

Chanukah is the Festival of Lights. It is the Jewish people’s eight-night commemoration of the Maccabees’ triumph over the Syrian-Greek army. It is a celebration of the sacred oil, expected to last for only one night, but that in fact lasted for eight.

While the origin of Chanukah is embraced universally, the holiday is celebrated in diverse ways around the world. As Jews of the 21st century, we are able to experience Chanukah, and every Jewish holiday, like never before. From viral YouTube covers of pop songs to Chanukah-themed Twitter hashtags and Facebook statuses, holidays have transcended ritual to encompass the interactivity and connectivity upon which our generation thrives.

As BBYO teens, we live this interactivity and connectivity every day. As members of the largest pluralistic, peer-led, Jewish youth movement, we have had the opportunity to share, learn and connect with each other for nearly a century through BBYO.

Recently, this connection allowed BBYO teenagers (ourselves included) in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Balkans to come together and share how we celebrate Chanukah in our home communities. We discussed our Chanukah experiences and traditions over Skype, lit candles and sang the blessings together and engaged in a truly global Chanukah experience.

While the dinner table is a true expression of different rituals, it is also where we found a shared tradition: a focus on fried foods. The oil used in the preparation of these foods is a reference to the oil that lit the Maccabees’ menorah.
Our friends overseas shared that many European Jews enjoy fried chicken, fried vegetables and fried fruit, and for dessert, pancakes or fritters made with potatoes, apples and rice. Ashkenazi Jews feast on potato latkes and donuts while Sephardim serve fritters in syrup like loukoumas, a deep-fried Greek pastry comparable to a donut. Loukoumas is dough coated in honey and cinnamon, a favorite of our BBYO friends in Turkey.

We could go on about delicious delicacies forever, but Chanukah is not just about food. It is a time for the Jewish community to unite. This sense of community is recognized by Rebeka Mucheva, a BBYO teen from Skupje, Macedonia. Rebeka said that her Sunday school takes a special interest in making Chanukah as exciting, interesting and enjoyable as possible for the youngest children. She helped plan special events for the 2- to 12-year-old group. “It is the balance between fun and education that we incorporate into these events which make them memorable occasions that stay with the kids forever,” wrote Rebeka in a Facebook message. (A photograph of the Chanukah party is on the left.) 

Last year, Chanukah was unforgettable for BBYO teen Neta Milkenkovic from Serbia. In addition to eating traditional foods and lighting candles, Serbian teens had a visit from a very special guest: Yossef Levy, the Israeli ambassador to the Republic of Serbia.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, Chanukah is celebrated in very traditional ways. Families come together to light the candles and say the blessings over the chanukiah. The dreidel is spun, presents exchanged and quality time is spent together. Nick Phillips, a BBYO teen from England, enjoys singing “Maoz tzur” with his family as the candles are lit.

All over the world, it is customary to give to others during Chanukah. Sofie Jacobs, a BBYO teen from Rockville, Md., described Chanukah as a time to not only give gifts, but to also give back to the community. In this spirit of Chanukah, Sofie took part in a program with BBYO friends in Washington, D.C., which donated gifts to those in need and performed acts of community service.

Through video messaging, teens in New York speak openly about Judaism with teens in Bulgaria, and teens in Chicago light their menorah with teens in the Ukraine. Having a global BBYO network means that we have friends in Jewish communities around the world and we can share and learn from one another.

BBYO is like the chanukiah. Each branch, like each community, is brighter and stronger when shining together. Connecting with our friends and Jewish communities around the world is inspiring; this connection allows us to make an impact on others and share our customs from generation to generation.

author's bio: 
Michaela Brown is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. and Nicholas Phillips is a senior at Merchant Taylors’ School in London, England.

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