COLUMBIA — Paige Sommerer stood at the table, using a slim yellow candle to light a similar pink one. Several other girls crowded around as Sommerer quickly recited short prayers in Hebrew.
The ceremony of lighting the menorah was over, and the first night of Hanukkah had officially begun at Lathrop Hall at MU.
This is the first time in several years that the Jewish festival of lights falls during the school year and not during finals week. For this reason, representatives of MU’s residence halls have decided to team up with Hillel, a campus Jewish student organization, to bring menorahs — and Hanukkah — to the dorms.
“We don’t usually permit candles in the residence halls because of the fire hazard, but, respecting the diverse range of people in our community, it’s important for people to express their religious faith,” said Kristen Temple, associate director of residential life for the residential academic programs. “In this case, that involves the lighting of Hanukkah candles.”
Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration commemorating Jewish perseverance and faith in God. After Jewish places of worship were destroyed around 165 B.C. by the king of Syria, the Jews worked to resurrect their temple but found only enough oil to last for one day, while it would take a runner eight days to retrieve another pot of oil. Miraculously, that small bit of oil lasted those eight days, and the Hanukkah menorah is in part a symbol of that miracle.
Although the holiday is a minor one in Judaism, it has managed to become a big tradition for many Jews in the United States, partly because of its juxtaposition to the Christian holiday of Christmas.
For 18-year-old Sommerer, this year is the first time the freshman will not be celebrating Hanukkah with her family.
“It’s kind of weird not being home. It’s just a tradition of the house,” Sommerer said, recalling her grandmother’s “amazingly delicious” potato latkes and the games of dreidle she and her cousins used to play as kids using pennies or chocolate coins to gamble with. She said Hanukkah is one of her favorite holidays, ranking first or second next to Thanksgiving.
Indeed, for many Jews, more emphasis is placed on family time rather than on the religious aspect of the holiday.
“Hanukkah is not really that big, but we celebrate it as a family,” said Marina Shifrin, a sophomore journalism major at MU who works as a peer advisor at Lathrop Hall. This is Shifrin’s second year of being away from family during this holiday.
“I just miss being with parents. We don’t do Christmas, so we don’t get to do the whole family holiday thing” when Hanukkah falls during the school year, Shifrin said.
Several non-Jews also attended Tuesday evening’s ceremony, interested to find out about and participate in the event.
“It was pretty interesting. I’ve never been to something like that before,” said Kate Miller, another peer advisor at Lathrop Hall. “I had no expectations, didn’t know what I was getting into. But it was surprisingly short. Very few religious ceremonies are very short,” she said with a laugh.
Barbie Banks, who is the residence hall coordinator at Lathrop Hall and who organized the nightly menorah lightings at 5:30, said she wanted this to be a learning experience for her mostly Christian residents in addition to being a way for Jewish residents to practice their traditions.
“It’s important to participate in religious diversity, not just racial and ethnic diversity,” Banks said. “I feel that religious intolerance is one of the biggest problems on campus.”
Sommerer said she enjoyed the ceremony at Lathrop, and plans to attend the menorah lighting there for the rest of the nights as well.
“I almost forgot about it until I looked at the calendar, and I wanted to see if there’s any way I can light candles here,” said Sommerer, who lives in nearby Jones Hall. “It was fun and neat. I really admire the people who aren’t Jews who came to see what happens.”