Just as a topsy-turvy dreidel is spun for the holidays, Rabbi Shimon Stillerman and wife, Zeldy, have put their own little spin on the traditional Hanukkah celebration.
Since in-person gatherings are limited for everyone this year due to the coronavirus pandemic – including Jewish communities of worship – Rabbi Stillerman of Chabad of Islip Township, in Bay Shore, came up with an alternative: to bring Hanukkah to the people.
While it’s easy to toss in the towel and avoid celebrations this year, Stillerman said, he was eager to challenge that concept and find solutions to gather in a safe way.
Thus, the Hanukkah Mobile was born.
The colorful mobile van, decked out with a menorah, will visit families throughout Islip Town to encourage a safe, outdoor celebration of the Jewish holiday.
Inspired by others of its kind in Stillerman’s hometown of Brooklyn, the Hanukkah Mobile may stop at local businesses during the daytime. Each night of Hanukkah, a menorah lighting will be brought to one or two of the hamlets in Islip, excluding Friday evening, in observance of the Sabbath. People can check Facebook to see where the van will stop each night, and personal visits are also available upon request, Stillerman said.
“It’s just to uplift this community,” he said. “It’s a great way to make Hanukkah pop up all over town.”
Though the Hanukkah Mobile is new to Chabad of Islip this year, it’s not the only way the Stillermans have crafted unique ways to celebrate during the pandemic.
Every Sunday of Hanukkah meant a celebration for Brightwaters Village in years past. Residents would gather at the head of the Brightwaters Canal to light the menorah.
This year, Chabad of Islip is opting for a scaled-down version of the event. The theme for this year’s celebration, which will take place Dec. 12 at 5:30 p.m., is “Hanukkah of Gratitude,” which will honor and thank local health care heroes who have put their lives on the line during the pandemic.
The Islip synagogue will also host a free virtual Hanukkah party Wednesday, Dec. 16 from 6 to 7 p.m. Ventriloquist Chuck Field will provide entertainment.
Chabad of Islip is part of a network of over 5,000 Chabad centers all over the world, Stillerman said, each of which operates independently. Stillerman said he and Zeldy were eager to be a part of what Chabad does around the world and bring a more “vibrant Judaism” to Islip when they moved to the area six years ago.
Like many other organizations, Chabad of Islip was forced to improvise and operate online upon New York State’s mandated shutdown. As soon as they were permitted, they shifted back to small, distanced in-person meetings. On a weekly basis, the synagogue sees between 15 to 20 people, through in-person Shabbat services, weekly online classes, and special online lectures and events.
“We’ve had more get-togethers during COVID than before COVID, because people were looking for means of connections, people were looking for spiritual nourishment, and they just kept coming out,” Stillerman said.
Stillerman drew a parallel between the lightness of the holiday and the effort to rid the darkness of our current circumstances.
“Hanukkah is all about the lights, and lighting up the darkness,” he said. “I think that’s the way we have to look at the lights we use on Hanukkah, especially this year. We’re not just trying to use the light to suppress the darkness, we’re trying to transform the darkness. And that’s the ultimate goal: to transform the darkness of the world into light, and make this world a better place.”