Menorah Lighting
Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Holidays at St. Thomas: Hanukkah 101

The holiday season is one of light and warmth at the University of St. Thomas, and that glow is about to get even brighter. Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday celebrated by Jewish people around the world, begins in 2023 at nightfall on Dec. 7.

Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is a time of celebration as Jews retell the miraculous story of freedom fighter Judah Maccabee, who led a revolution to reclaim his people’s temple. Centuries later, the event is observed with menorah lightings, special meals, games and gifts.

To learn more about those traditions and the significance behind the holiday, the Newsroom spoke with Minnesota Hillel's Abby Kirshbaum, who volunteers with Campus Ministry at St. Thomas.

What is the significance behind the Festival of Lights?

Hanukkah means dedication, and it's a celebration of the Maccabees defeating the Greeks. When the Greeks were hoping and trying to get the Jews to assimilate to their culture, the Jews said ‘No, we’re going to continue to be Jewish.’

Another story that we celebrate on Hanukkah is the oil that lasted eight days. It’s based on an old wives’ tale, but we still celebrate it. The story goes that during the Maccabees’ fight against the Greeks they only had enough oil to light the menorah in the temple for one day. But miraculously, it was lit for eight days, and so we celebrate by lighting the menorah for eight days.

How is Hanukkah observed in the U.S.?

Menorah Lighting
St. Paul Rabbi Tzemach Feller welcomes guests to a Hanukkah menorah lighting in front of the Anderson Student Center on Dec. 21, 2022. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Hanukkah observed in America is a time to gather with friends. We celebrate with family and we give gifts. Traditionally, you don’t give gifts on Hanukkah, but we’ve adopted it because we think it’s fun too. We also light the menorah with our friends and family. We eat sufganiyot, which are jelly-filled doughnuts or whatever kind of filled doughnuts you like. I like my doughnuts filled with Nutella. We also make latkes (potato pancakes) – which are kind of like an uber greasy hashbrown.

What are some of your favorite traditions?

My favorite traditions are to celebrate with my friends and family. My cousins and I usually do a gift exchange. It’s a nice time for us all to just get together and celebrate our community. I also really do love lighting the hanukkiah and watching the candles burn. It really does light up the entire house. Once my power went out and I needed to light candles and I used the hanukkiah to light up the house and it was so bright and it was amazing. And to know that that can happen every night on Hanukkah, is something I get really excited about.

What do you want the St. Thomas community to know about Hanukkah?

This is a celebration of Jewish triumph and not assimilating into the culture at hand. It’s about staying true to who you are and not letting anyone take that.

What has it been like working with the Jewish community on campus?

Working at St. Thomas and serving St. Thomas students has been such a joy. What I am noticing about the work that I’m doing is there are a lot of students who have a Jewish background and are curious about what that means. And I’m so excited that I’m providing an opportunity to learn and to find community in that. It’s great to help students begin to understand the many ways that you can celebrate and be Jewish. Because there’s not just one way, there are so many and I’m so thrilled to be here helping with that work.

St. Thomas Hanukkah party

St. Thomas will hold its own Hanukkah party for current students on Dec. 12. There will be a menorah lighting, sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts), dreidel playing and much more. Hosted by Campus Ministry, Minnesota Hillel, and Chabad MacGroveland, the Hanukkah Party gets underway at 4:30 p.m. in Dorsey Commons at Anderson Student Center.