After remaining socially distanced last year, the Tri-Valley Jewish community is coming together to celebrate an especially meaningful Hanukkah holiday in person this year.
"We're really glad to be back in person," Rabbi Larry Milder from Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton told the Weekly. "We're lucky we have a good space where we can accommodate people and still have enough space for seating to be a little distanced. It's really a safe space for people; it means a lot to everybody."
Starting on Sunday, Beth Emek and Chabad of the Tri-Valley will both commemorate the festival of lights over its eight-night duration with a number of local attractions and in-person events, including special Hanukkah services and menorah lightings.
Beth Emek will have a nightly candle lighting online from Nov. 28 to Dec. 5, starting at 6:30 p.m. Different members of the congregation will host the candle lighting each night, and open with a different song. "It's a very special, kind of really warm, friendly way of doing Hanukkah, even though it's online," Milder said.
The Sabbath during Hanukkah "is a big deal for our congregation," and each family brings their menorah to the Friday night service at Congregation Beth Emek to light afterwards.
"We set out a bunch of tables and it's bright and it's really eye-dazzling, to see the variety of Hanukkah menorahs that people have," Milder added.
Beth Emek's Friday night service on Dec. 3 will be the same as other weekly services "but with Hanukkah prayers added in," according to Milder, as well as Hanukkah songs, retelling the holiday's origins, and, of course, a festive lighting of the menorah. The service will also start a half hour later, at 8:00 p.m. Milder said people are welcome to join indoors (and masked) or online, where all of Beth Emek's services are live streamed.
People can also load up on latkes and other Jewish food from a pop-up by Wise Sons Deli at the Congregation Beth Emek parking lot earlier on Dec. 3 from 1 to 3 p.m.
"People can order real Hanukkah deli food for home, they will be out here with their food truck delivering the orders on Friday afternoon," Milder said. (Per his blog, Milder recommends using leftover cranberry sauce from this week's Thanksgiving feast for a tasty and different latke topping than applesauce or sour cream like usual.)
Chabad of the Tri-Valley is hosting multiple opportunities to celebrate Chanukah in person in the coming week.
"We want to bring the Chanukah spirit to the community this year, so we're going all out this year, that's our motto, and people are very excited," Rabbi Raleigh Resnick said in an interview.
Resnick said that "as great as the internet and Zoom is, it doesn't represent that human interaction that's so desperately needed. We want to encourage the community to come in person," starting with Chanukah on Ice at Dublin Iceland on Nov 28 from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m.
"We're doing fire on ice," Resnick added. "We're going to have a big, big menorah on the ice rink with fire. It's really a packed Chanukah, it's amazing."
Skaters will be entertained by Chanukah, Jewish, and Israeli music, and can fill up afterwards on free drinks, donuts and, of course, latkes. Tickets are $15 per person. Dublin Iceland is located at 7212 San Ramon Rd. in Dublin.
Chanukah Wonderland continues the week-plus festivities at the Stoneridge Shopping Center grand court on Nov. 30 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. "Last year we actually did it outside in cars and we had it in the parking lot, and this year we're going back indoors," Resnick said.
Visitors can play games, make candles, enjoy live music, photo ops, and balloon animal designs, design their own dreidel, and take part in a gelt toss. The kindling of a nine-foot menorah rounds out the free event.
While many people associate Chanukah with eating stacks of latkes, Resnick said a special Greek Shabbat dinner will be offered at the Jewish Center in Pleasanton (3370 Hopyard Rd.) for $25 per person on Dec. 3, starting 6:30 p.m.
The menu includes halibut in tomato wine sauce, Greek lemon chicken soup, creamy eggplant spread, moussaka, green beans, pita, and three desserts: halva, baklava, and a traditional Chanukah treat called sufganiyot, a type of jelly-filled doughnut. Cabernet wine will also be served with the meal.
Resnick said the Hellenic twist on this year's Chanukah feast is a nod to the holiday's origins in the Jews defeating the Greeks in the Maccabean Revolt and rededicating the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C.
"Chanukah celebrates the victory, so we enjoy their food and use it to celebrate and bring joy to our community," Resnick said.
The final night of in-person festivities ends with Chanukah Under the Stars at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore (2400 First St.). Starting at 7:30 p.m. the one hour event includes a gelt drop by the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, a menorah lighting with local dignitaries including Supervisor David Haubert, as well as live music, a grand raffle, hot drinks, and more latkes and donuts.
Chabad is also accepting pre-orders for doughnut pickups at the Jewish Center on Nov. 28 and Dec. 3 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
As part of Chabad's traditional observance of the Jewish Sabbath, no electronics or live streaming are used, meaning services at Chabad can only be attended in person and masked.
"It's been a really rough year, and I think everybody relates to the notion that (Hanukkah is) the festival of light and a festival of hope, and that in the darkest times things can get better," Milder said. "As Jews, we understand that difficult times can come, but they can be overcome. We think the world can recover from the difficult challenges we face now. We believe in the possibility of healing and a better world."
For more information on Hanukkah happenings around the Tri-Valley, visit www.bethemek.org and www.jewishtrivalley.com.