Brian Stolar lights the fourth candle on the menorah at Chabad of Montclair’s outdoor Hanukkah celebration in Lackawanna Plaza last year. This year, temples and synagogues in Montclair are starting to return to in-person Hanukkah celebrations after the COVID-19 pandemic forced celebrations to go virtual in 2020. (KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

By ERIN ROLL
For Montclair Local

On Nov. 28, Hanukkah celebrations will begin with the lighting of the first candles on menorahs. 

This year, Montclair’s Jewish communities will be able to return to large-scale, in-person public celebrations, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced celebrations to be scaled back or switched to other formats in 2020.

For Montclair’s temples and synagogues, being able to have regular worship services, celebrations of the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and other activities and observances required some ingenuity. 

On Nov. 29, Chabad of Montclair will host a Hanukkah Fest and Grand Menorah Lighting at the Wellmont Arts Plaza. The event will feature rapper and songwriter Nissim Black, and there will be kosher food trucks. 

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Chabad of Montclair has long hosted a Hanukkah celebration in public for everyone to attend. 

“We’re really behind the idea that Hanukkah is a holiday that should be celebrated publicly,” said Rabbi Yaacov Leaf. Bringing the holiday to the streets is fitting for the message of light that the menorah symbolizes, he said. 

In past years, Chabad of Montclair has hosted a town-wide menorah lighting in the center of town, usually in the area of Church Street and South Park Street; in 2019, the celebration’s theme was “Fire and Ice” and featured a specially made ice menorah, fire dancers and tables of latkes and doughnuts. 

As the celebrations grew, Leaf said it became necessary to move the celebrations to a larger area than a street corner in the center of town, especially given the continued need for social distancing. 

Last year, the menorah lighting was a drive-in celebration at Lackawanna Plaza. 

A drive-in event was found to be the only feasible option, Leaf said, so that the attendees could self-isolate in their cars. But the feedback from the attendees was overwhelmingly positive, he said, and the community was very proud that the celebration could still go on. “That was just amazing that we were able to pull it off,” he said.

The Hanukkah Fest will be the first concert-type event to take place on the plaza, he said. 

The concert and the food trucks are new features for this year. 

Bnai Keshet annually hosts Latkepalooza during Hanukkah, which ends Dec. 6, with latkes and other treats available to all. In 2020, Latkepalooza went to takeout only due to social distancing guidelines. Additionally, Bnai Keshet hosted drive-up menorah lightings. 

Last year, Temple Ner Tamid held a series of smaller, more focused menorah lightings, with different groups within the congregation in attendance for each one.

“It actually felt really nice,” Rabbi Marc Katz recalled. He said the temple was hoping to re-create some of that feeling for this year’s celebrations. The calendar includes a series of menorah lightings for different groups: for children in kindergarten through second grade, third grade through sixth grade, teens and so on. On Dec. 3, there will be a special concert featuring songleader and cantorial soloist Shimon Smith. 

The challenges posed by the pandemic caused the community to consider how its traditions could be adapted to the necessary restrictions. “I think our community is stronger for it,” Katz said. 

This year, Ner Tamid was able to celebrate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with in-person ceremonies. “That proved to ourselves and to the synagogue that we can function on … this third lap of COVID,” Katz said.

Religious school is starting to move back indoors now that the weather is starting to turn colder, he said, which coincides with more children receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. 

In a usual year, Rabbi David Greenstein said, Shomrei Emunah has big, festive celebrations for Hanukkah, including a carnival, but those will not be practical this year, given the ongoing health and safety concerns. 

The synagogue has been trying to make a careful return to in-person services and events, including the high holy day observances earlier this fall. Among members of the congregation, some have been eager to return to in-person events, while others are somewhat more cautious about an in-person return. 

Greenstein said that on Dec. 5, Shomrei Emunah will have an early evening celebration. The hope is to have a tent on site to allow a large number of people to celebrate safely, and food and refreshments will be served. “It’ll be nice to see the lights in everyone’s faces,” he said.

Greenstein noted that Shomrei Emunah has a large number of young people preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs, so that will be another celebration to look forward to in the coming months. 

More congregations celebrate — but cautiously